Articles By Athlon Sports
Love shook off the negative energy, later, though.
"Truth be told, I thought it was a pretty good reception, especially from people, familiar faces," Love told reporters after the game. "It was nice to see, shake hands, give a lot of hugs to different people and smile, wave… [Timberwolves owner] Glen and Becky Taylor came over to me and said some really nice stuff. Different teammates from the past, different guys over on the other bench. Flip [Saunders], as well, I gave him some love in the second half. It all went pretty well, and we ended up getting a win. Like I said earlier before the game, that's what we came here to do. We walked away with 10 straight.”
While Wolves fans might not love Kevin at the moment, they shouldn’t have too hard of a time moving past him. The man they got back when they traded him, No. 1 overall draft selection Andrew Wiggins, is thriving as he looks to have the Rookie of the Year race all but decided. The Canada native — whose “Maple Jordan” nickname seems increasingly apt — finished the contest with 33 points, even scoring a good amount of his baskets on LeBron James as he went 14-for-25 from the floor. In January, the 19-year-old took off, shooting 47 percent from the field and putting together an impressive highlight reel.
Love, meanwhile, is still struggling to find his optimal role in Cleveland. He missed the cut for the Eastern Conference All-Star squad this winter and has not been able to find his comfort zone in the Cavs’ offense. These challenges aren’t likely to last all season, as LeBron and Co. knew what they were getting in Love: one of the best offensive big men in the league. He’ll look more like that eventually. But for now, Wiggins’ ascension and Kevin’s stalled game are giving plenty of ammo to skeptics in Cleveland, and lots of relief to fans of the Wolves.
— John Wilmes
Glendale, AZ (SportsNetwork.com) - New England quarterback Tom Brady was named the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XLIX after leading the Patriots to a 28-24 come-from-behind victory over the Seattle Seahawks for his fourth career Lombardi Trophy.
Brady threw two of his four touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, the last a 3-yard strike to Julian Edelman that put the Patriots ahead with 2:02 remaining. The 37-year-old finished 37-of-50 for 328 yards and shook off a pair of costly interceptions, the first coming at the goal line in the opening quarter and the other leading to a Seattle touchdown in the third.
Making a record sixth Super Bowl start at quarterback, Brady earned his third career MVP award to tie boyhood idol Joe Montana for the most in the game's history.
Brady also earned his fourth career Super Bowl win, which was sealed by rookie Malcolm Butler's interception of Russell Wilson at the Patriots' 1-yard line with 20 seconds left. That ties him with Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the most by a quarterback.
The savvy veteran also broke Montana's record for most career Super Bowl touchdown passes during the game, with the four giving Brady 13 all-time. His 37 completions against the Seahawks, meanwhile, established a new Super Bowl mark.
Brady was also the MVP of New England's first two Super Bowl triumphs, which came in Super Bowls XXXVI (against St. Louis) and XXXVII (against Carolina).
The college basketball Saturday has turned into the Day of Dunksand that’s before the primetime slate has started.
Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell gave us perhaps the alley oop of the season, but all good things have to wait.
Let’s walk through the Day of Dunk so far:
• From the morning session, Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes sprints from off screen to the rim to get the put back against Iowa.
• Then, Florida’s Alex Murphy shows us how to beat the press against Arkansas.
• In the same game, Florida’s Dorian Finney-Smith drives to beat the shot clock.
• And finally, this Montrezl Harrell alley oop for Louisville sends us to a different universe.
Seattle can join a rather exclusive club with a win over New England in Super Bowl XLIX. It would mark the ninth time in the Super Bowl era that a team was able to repeat as champion.
Where would the Seahawks rank among past repeat champs? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, they need to win first; but Super Bowl victories over slam-dunk Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady would be a strong start for any argument.
Here’s a look at the eight teams that have managed to repeat and how we rank them. Keep in mind, we are really splitting hairs here.
1. Miami, Super Bowls VII and VII
Regular season record: 26-2
Points in their favor: This was perhaps the most dominant two-season run in the Super Bowl era. The Super Bowl VII champs remain the only undefeated team since 1929, led the league in offense and defense and can even boast a road playoff win, as some odd scheduling rules at the time sent them to Pittsburgh for the AFC title game. Even though Miami didn’t go undefeated in 1973, the Dolphins still put together an impressive season, and they were more dominant in the postseason than they had been the year before.
What hurts their case: About the only knock you can come up with for this run would be that Miami’s Super Bowl competition was not as strong as some others on this list. The games were less than memorable, save for kicker Garo Yepremian’s ill-fated attempt at a pass that resulted in Washington’s only points in Super Bowl VII.
2. Dallas, Super Bowls XXVII and XVIII
Regular season record: 25-7
Points in their favor: The Cowboys won the league’s toughest division at the time in both 1992 and ‘93. They also had to get by equally dominant San Francisco in the NFC title game both years, the first time on the road. While the two Super Bowls look like easy wins if you just look at the final scores, Dallas was not rolling over teams just happy to be there. Buffalo was loaded with Hall of Famers, desperate after two previous Super Bowl losses and in fact led in both games. The Cowboys just rolled over them.
What hurts their case: Both Super Bowls got out of hand, so perhaps there is a “clutch” factor missing here that can be found elsewhere on this list. But in terms of overall dominance for two seasons, including facing tough playoff competition, this run is difficult to beat.
3. San Francisco, Super Bowls XXIII and XXIV
Regular season record: 24-8
Points in their favor: This was the height of the 49ers’ powers, as they were in the league’s top five offensively and defensively in both 1988 and '89. Their 10-6 record in 1988 sent them on the road for the NFC title game, but they routed Chicago, 28-3. The 1989 team was outstanding, going 14-2 and winning its playoff games by a combined score of 71-16. The Super Bowl wins may be the most impressive on this list when you consider they beat the league MVP (Boomer Esiason) in the first and a Hall-of-Famer (John Elway) in the second.
What hurts their case: It’s impossible to ignore a 10-6 regular season when matching this team up against the undefeated 1972 Dolphins. Some may also be less-than-impressed with a rout of a Denver team losing its third Super Bowl in four years, but those Broncos had given up the league’s fewest points.
4t. Pittsburgh, Super Bowls IX and X
Regular season record: 22-5-1
Points in their favor: We’re copping out a bit by not picking one Steelers’ repeat over the other, but it’s essentially the same cast of characters. The perception is that the Steelers’ first two Super Bowl teams were carried by the defense, and to some extent that is true. But both the 1974 and ‘75 squads were also in the league’s top 10 on offense, as stars such as Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and Terry Bradshaw were just hitting their primes. The 1975 Steelers were the league’s most dominant team all season as Bradshaw finally started every game at quarterback, adding a big-play element to a dominant running game. It would make the difference in the Super Bowl as Swann caught four passes for 161 yards to earn MVP honors in a 21-17 win over the Cowboys.
What hurts their case: The 1974 team may have dodged a bullet in that they hosted wild-card Buffalo in the divisional round of the playoffs despite having the AFC’s third-best record due to the league’s odd rotation for playoff matchups at the time. But the road win at Oakland in the AFC title game was impressive enough to make up for that, and the Super Bowl was no contest as the Steelers ran over the Vikings.
4t. Pittsburgh, Super Bowls XIII and XIV
Regular season record: 26-6
Points in their favor: The 1978-79 Steelers were still dominant defensively (ranking third and second, respectively, in the NFL) but much more explosive offensively than the 1974-75 teams that won the Super Bowl. In fact, in six postseason wins on the way to winning Super Bowls XIII and XIV, Pittsburgh averaged 32 points per game. The Steelers also defeated a defending Super Bowl champ in Super Bowl XIII, one of only two teams on this list to do so.
What hurts their case: While these may have been more balanced teams than the earlier Pittsburgh Super Bowl champs, the earlier teams faced tougher competition in the postseason. While the Super Bowl win over defending champ Dallas is impressive, it is cancelled out by facing a 9-7 Rams team in Super Bowl XIV.
6. New England, Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX
Regular season record: 28-4
Points in their favor: New England’s 28-4 regular season record is eclipsed only by the 1972-73 Dolphins when it comes this list. The Patriots also had impressive playoff wins along the way, beating Peyton Manning and the Colts both seasons and going on the road to defeat 15-1 Pittsburgh in 2004. While many others on this list cruised to Super Bowl wins, New England was tested twice and came out on the winning end of two 3-point games.
What hurts their case: Some would argue that two clutch Super Bowl wins could also be called “less-than-dominant.” Needing a last-second field goal to beat upstart Carolina was especially surprising. The Pats were also not loaded with Hall of Fame players like some teams on this list. It’s certainly harder to keep a team together and repeat in the 21st century, so perhaps that is in their favor; but in terms of overall dominance, this is a tough list with which to compete.
7. Denver, Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII
Regular season record: 26-6
Points in their favor: The 1997 Broncos represent the only non-division champ on this list. But despite finishing second in the AFC West, they were top-five in offense and defense and had the league’s best point differential. They also defeated defending champ Green Bay in the Super Bowl. The 1998 team featured league MVP Terrell Davis and beat a 14-2 Atlanta team in the Super Bowl.
What hurts their case: We knocked the Niners down a peg for a less-than-dominant regular season, so we have to consider that Denver was a wild card team in 1997. Also, while the 1998 Falcons were very good, the fact that they upset a 15-1 Vikings juggernaut in the NFC title game leaves us wondering what might have been in Super Bowl XXXIII.
8. Green Bay, Super Bowls I and II
Regular season record: 21-6-1
Points in their favor: The Packers are victims of bad timing here, because their two Super Bowl wins came at the tail end of a run that saw them win five NFL titles in seven seasons. If the Super Bowl Era had started even one season sooner, odds are we are talking about the only three-peat ever.
What hurts their case: Green Bay’s stars were all aging at this point. In fact, legendary backs Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung moved on after Super Bowl I, while other stars such as Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, Willie Wood, Forrest Gregg and Jerry Kramer were all on the wrong side of 30. There is no denying the greatness of this dynasty, but the pre-Super Bowl Packers were the stronger and more dominant teams.
-- By John Gworek
1. Atlanta Hawks (38-8)
There’s no better way to put it: the Hawks have beaten the crap out of everybody, east and west, for multiple months running. Until their 17-game winning streak comes to a halt, there’s no reason to drop them from this spot.
2. Golden State Warriors (36-7)
Despite having their 19-game home court winning streak snapped by an inspired Chicago Bulls squad this week, the Warriors are still sitting pretty, and they’re still the favorites to represent their conference in the Finals.
3. Memphis Grizzlies (34-12)
Quietly, quietly, quietly — that’s how the Grizzlies have always compiled top marks in the regular season, and this year is no exception. Marc Gasol is finally getting some overdue recognition as a starter for the Western Conference All-Stars, but otherwise the Grizz are still an unseen title contender.
4. Los Angeles Clippers (32-14)
The Clippers have snapped out of their malaise and won six in a row, climbing up the prickly Western standings and finally looking urgent enough to perhaps meet their championship-or-bust expectations.
5. Houston Rockets (32-14)
The Rockets have endured a lengthy absence from Dwight Howard already, and the recent buzz about his knee suggests they might have to do it again. If they come out of this one still shining, James Harden’s MVP campaign will only grow stronger.
6. Washington Wizards (31-16)
John Wall has become the best pure point guard in the league, and the addition of Paul Pierce continues to give the Wiz an added calm and edge. Washington isn’t talked about as a potential Eastern Conference champion too often, but they should be.
7. Portland Trail Blazers (32-14)
LaMarcus Aldridge has foregone surgery on this thumb to play through the pain. He must believe there’s something special on the horizon with this Blazers squad to jeopardize his body that way.
8. Cleveland Cavaliers (27-20)
The Cavs’ trades for Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert have paid off, and LeBron James is spry and back to playing MVP-level ball. It doesn’t hurt that Kyrie Irving is having his most productive season yet, too.
9. Chicago Bulls (30-18)
A shocking win at Golden State — along with wins over the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks — was par for the Bulls’ 2014-15 course. So was their double-overtime loss to the lowly Los Angeles Lakers. It’s been a confounding season for this so-called title contender.
10. San Antonio Spurs (30-17)
The Spurs are looking better with Kawhi Leonard back in the fold, but doubts about their remaining motivation will persist until they go on one of their signature late-season winning streaks. Do they have another one left in them?
11. Toronto Raptors (31-15)
The Raptors had a bad January. Their recent four-game winning streak is encouraging, but this team nevertheless looks day by day more like one that’s not built for a tough seven-game series just yet.
12. Dallas Mavericks (30-17)
Rajon Rondo’s been a strange, awkward fit in Dallas. They’ve made it work, for the most part, but a recent four-game skid has raised some questions — particularly about their thin front court behind Tyson Chandler.
13. Phoenix Suns (27-20)
The Suns are holding tight to the eighth and final playoff spot in perhaps the best Western Conference of all time, but the New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder are coming. And in the case of Kevin Durant’s Thunder, they’re coming fast.
14. Oklahoma City Thunder (23-23)
OKC has a lot of questions to answer, but the response to almost all of them is this: more great play from Durant and Russell Westbrook, two of the most fearsome players of this era. You should be surprised if you don’t see them sneak into the playoffs.
15. New Orleans Pelicans (24-22)
Monty Williams is on the chopping block for his job with the Pelicans, but he probably shouldn’t be. After Anthony Davis, this is a team with a ton of problems and shortcomings, and that falls on general manager Dell Demps’ shoulders.
16. Milwaukee Bucks (24-22)
The young Bucks are one of the best surprises of the season, as they’ve created one of the league’s best defenses under second-time coach Jason Kidd. They could scare some overdogs in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
17. Miami Heat (20-25)
The Heat continue to struggle through the post-LeBron era, despite the emergence of big man Hassan Whiteside. The latest road bump? An indefinite absence from the freshly injured Dwyane Wade.
18. Charlotte Hornets (19-27)
After a disastrous start to the season, the Hornets have gotten their defense together and strung some wins together off the radar. They’re still falling well below expectations, but Charlotte should be able to fit into the playoff picture out East.
19. Denver Nuggets (19-28)
The Nuggets have as little direction as any of the NBA’s lost teams. The good news is that they did well to trade for rookie sensation Jusuf Nurkic, a 20-year-old from Bosnia who could be the best big man of his class.
20. Brooklyn Nets (18-27)
The Nets remain a depressing collection of bad contracts and ambitions no higher than the east’s eighth playoff spot. It’s no mystery why owner Mikhail Prokhorov wants to sell this underperforming team.
21. Sacramento Kings (16-28)
DeMarcus Cousins is an All-Star snub. What else is new? Boogie is the best offensive big man in the game, but the league still seems far from recognizing him as such.
22. Detroit Pistons (17-30)
Brandon Jennings’ tragic ACL tear has derailed one of the best stories of the NBA season, and the Pistons look as bad the last week as they did in their season’s terrible beginning. Can they get back on course without their point guard?
23. Utah Jazz (16-30)
The Jazz continue to lose competitive games, which is the very best they can do as a young, learning squad. Look for them to make a leap next year, after a summer spent absorbing the lessons of these growing pains.
24. Indiana Pacers (17-31)
The Pacers won’t be competitive until they get Paul George back. Even then, though, this season has demonstrated that they might need another significant piece before they can get back toward the top of the Eastern Conference.
25. Orlando Magic (15-34)
Head coach Jacque Vaughn doesn’t look long for the job these days. A talented young crew hasn’t made the expected jump this season, and the Magic are said to be actively seeking a replacement.
26. Boston Celtics (16-28)
The Celtics stay in their holding pattern, waiting out the season to make noise in the draft again — especially now that Jeff Green and Rondo are out the door, taking the chance of real Celtics’ competition with them.
27. Los Angeles Lakers (13-34)
The Lakers suck. Everybody loves it, because this never happens. Kobe Bryant’s out for the year, and things look bad for the short term. But don’t be surprised if a star reaffirms the glamour of playing in Tinseltown, and signs there this summer.
28. New York Knicks (9-38)
The Knicks have begun their rebuild in earnest, and any team interested in their leftover veteran pieces should not hesitate to call Phil Jackson about a trade. Losing is the new winning in New York.
29. Minnesota Timberwolves (8-37)
Andrew Wiggins has been the premier rookie in the league for quite a while now, and the Wolves look destined for another great prospect as they keep dropping contests. They’re not far from being the league’s best farm system, if they aren’t already.
30. Philadelphia 76ers (9-37)
The Sixers are tanking. Didn’t you hear? And guess what? It’s working. They’ll be back at the top of the draft this June, just like they planned.
— John Wilmes
Great college basketball teams can only go as far as their star players take them.
Where would UConn be last March without Shabazz Napier’s constant heroics? As the calendar flips to February and conference play intensifies, coaches are looking for their stars to separate themselves from the rest of the conference crowd and lead their teams deep into March.
Here is our list of top Conference Players of the Year contenders with a little more than a month left in the season.
The Favorite: Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
After sitting out most of last season for academic reasons, Jerian Grant has become the ACC’s most explosive and complete offensive weapon. Grant leads the Irish in points (17.4) and assists (4.6) while shooting better than 51 percent from the floor. After Wednesday’s 23-point, 12-assist, six rebound performance in a win over Duke, Grant has overthrown Jahlil Okafor as the favorite for ACC Player of the Year for the time being.
Other Candidates: Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, Virginia’s Justin Anderson
The Favorite: Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
The Sooners have slumped of late, but Hield is still averaging better than 20 points per game in league play. Overall, he leads the Big 12 in scoring (18.6 points per game) while contributing 5.5 rebounds. He’ll have a better shot of holding off other contenders if Oklahoma can turn its fortunes down the stretch.
Other Candidates: Iowa State’s Georges Niang, West Virginia’s Juwan Staten
The Favorite: LaDontae Henton, Providence
A year ago, Providence had Bryce Cotton leading the Friars to the NCAA Tournament. Now, Providence has another prolific scorer who has Ed Cooley’s team on the way to a second consecutive Tourney for the first time since 1989-90. Henton is ninth in the country in scoring at 20.8 points per game while averaging 5.6 rebounds. His season-high 38 points in a 75-74 win over Notre Dame back on Nov. 23 looks more impressive now than it did at the time.
Other Candidates: Butler’s Kellen Dunham, Seton Hall’s Sterling Gibbs
The Favorite: D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State
Russell is the most complete and physical guard in the nation. Second in the conference in scoring (19.4 points) and fourth in assists (5.1 assists), Russell has almost single-handedly kept Ohio State in the NCAA conversation. He has posted 21, 27, 33, and 22 points in his last four Big Ten games. The Buckeyes will only go as far as their freshman point guard takes them in March.
Other Candidates: Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell
The Favorite: Delon Wright, Utah
The 6-5 Wright has a sterling 6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio to add to his 129.9 offensive rating and 14.6 points per game, making the Los Angeles native one of the nation’s most efficient players. A lockdown defender, Wright is the heartbeat of the No. 11 Utes, playing 31 minutes and pulling in four rebounds per contest. If Utah wishes to dethrone Arizona as kings of the Pac-12, Wright’s continued success is going to be vital.
Others Candidates: Stanford’s Chasson Randle, Arizona’s Stanley Johnson
The Favorite: Bobby Portis, Arkansas
Portis is the most versatile piece in the Razorbacks' high-scoring offense. Able to connect from behind the arc or play on the block, the 6-11 Portis is a matchup nightmare. Ports leads the SEC in scoring (17.7 points) and is fourth in rebounds (8.5) all while shooting 56 percent both from 2 and from 3.
Other Candidates: Tennessee’s Josh Richardson, Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein
The Favorite: Ryan Boatright, UConn
With the departure of Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright is coach Kevin Ollie’s go-to player and senior leader. Boatright is responsible for 28.1 percent of the Huskies total scoring, shooting 27.1 percent of the team’s shots and connecting 42.7 percent of the time. The Huskies are a long-shot to make the Big Dance with just 11 wins, but if anyone knows about getting hot at the right time, it’s the American’s leading scorer and most efficient player.
Other candidates SMU’s Nic Moore, Tulsa’s Shaquille Harrison
-By Jake Rose
The Cleveland Cavaliers starting point guard was sensational last night, leading his team past the vaunted Portland Trail Blazers, 99-94. Irving shot 17-for-36, tallying 56 percent of his team’s points with LeBron James out of action, resting with a day-to-day wrist ailment.
It’s fitting that Irving’s performance came against Portland, too. The Blazers are one of the many teams the Cavs lost to at the peak of their early-season growing pains — 101-82, on November 4. Now, Cleveland has shifted course, and they’ve matched their season-best eight-game winning streak behind Irving’s scintillating play.
It’s particularly encouraging to fans in northeast Ohio to see their team beating a quality opponent without the basketball king, James, who recently said Irving is becoming a leader beneath him in his own singular way. With a game like last night’s, it’s hard to dispute that claim. Take a look as Kyrie torches the Blazers:
South in Texas, Irving’s Team USA running mate James Harden was getting props from an old frenemy. Former teammate Chandler Parsons — now a forward with the in-state rival Dallas Mavericks — says The Beard needs to be recognized as this season’s MVP.
“He's the best player in basketball right now," Parsons told reporters before his Mavs fell 99-94 to Harden's Houston Rockets. "The things he's doing are incredible. The scouting report is focused in on stopping him and you see he's still getting 30 a game. It's impressive. It doesn't really surprise me. I saw firsthand how talented he is. He works extremely hard. He's playing better defense this year. He's leading their team. He's hitting tough shots. There's not much he's not doing.”
Harden dropped 17 points, eight assists and five rebounds to lead Houston, who grabbed the victory despite Dwight Howard missing the contest. The resume continues to build.
— John Wilmes
Hardly a physicist or investigator myself, I can’t offer any clarity on that one — that job is left, apparently, in Bill Nye’s hands. All I can give on this subject is the knowledge that such behavior is not unique to the sport of football.
“In the history of the National Basketball Association, there were teams that would take your breath away, leaving those watching gasping for air at the sight of their extraordinary acrobatic feats. And there were other teams that were so methodically powerful that they would quickly take the air out of opponents.
"And then there were the New York Knicks of the early 1970s, a team that had Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Jerry Lucas, Bill Bradley, Walt Frazier and Dick Barnett and that represented for many the apotheosis of the game.
"They simply took the air out of the ball.
"The team that basketball purists often called the best ever because they embodied many of the most respected elements of the game, such as sacrifice and intelligence, which they merged with efficient passing, aggressive defense and timely shooting, had this little gimmick that often gained them just enough of an edge to win.
"But it wasn`t cheating, exactly. It was more like creative invention that might come from the likes of some McHale, McAdoo or Machiavelli.
"'What we used to do was deflate the ball,’ recalls Phil Jackson, the cerebral reserve forward who was every bit as metaphysical as he was physical. 'We were a short team with our big guys like Willis, our center, only about 6-8 and Jerry Lucas also 6-8, DeBusschere, 6-6.
"'So what we had to rely on was boxing out and hoping the rebound didn't go long.
"'To help ensure that, we'd try to take some air out of the ball. You see, on the ball it says something like 'inflate to 7 to 9 pounds. We'd all carry pins and take the air out to deaden the ball.
"'It also helped our offense because we were a team that liked to pass the ball without dribbling it, so it didn't matter how much air was in the ball. It also kept other teams from running on us because when they`d dribble the ball, it wouldn't come up so fast.’”
Slower team? No problem: just make sure you’re playing with a slower ball.
— John Wilmes
Super Bowl XLIX between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks overflows with dramatic storylines and features fascinating characters that rival any Hollywood blockbuster. Tom Brady is the A-list superstar. Russell Wilson fills the role of the successful up-and-comer looking to steal Brady’s thunder. Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick are the leaders of men looking to cement their legacies as the conquering head coaches of the football realm, all supported by a fantastic ensemble cast of Richard Sherman, Rob Gronkowski, and Marshawn Lynch. This is better than Hollywood.
While those stories and leading men will garner so much of the attention this week leading up to the biggest football game of the year, here are some x-factors that also could play a big role in the outcome on Super Sunday.
The most over-dramatic headline in recent sports memory will surely be the elephant in the stadium all week long. While media outlets relentlessly pine over PSI and the science of pigskin in wet and cold conditions, the Patriots will be completely ignoring the “conspiracy” altogether — or at least try to. For the first time in his NFL career, Tom Brady is seemingly playing the role of bad guy after last week’s awkward press conference in which Brady was asked if he thought he was a cheater. As a franchise, New England has long been known for its constant stoicism and professionalism, but is the spotlight from another “cheating” allegation during the biggest week of the football calendar going to be too much of a nuisance for the business-like Patriots?
Patriots’ Receivers vs. The Legion of Boom
Defenses beware — every eligible player is an option in New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ playbook, something the Ravens and Colts know all too well. This offensive versatility is due in part to the variety of weapons that Brady has to throw to, as six players have more than 20 receptions this season.
Brady loves to use the middle of the field to exploit defenses. With tight end Rob Gronkowski being such a matchup nightmare for linebackers, wide receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell typically have extra space underneath opposing teams’ coverages in which to operate. But this Seattle defense is a different animal. The Seahawks’ vaunted “Legion of Boom” makes a point to get in their opponents’ faces (and their minds) with their physical play and relentless swagger. Cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell are backed by hard-hitting press safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, and all four bring heavy pop to the field. It will be interesting to see how effective the Patriots’ receivers are against the LOB. Brady may have to rely on his running backs as pass-catching options out of the backfield more than he usually does.
Castaways, no-names, and journeymen have been lining up at running back behind Brady for the better part of a decade. And no running back fits the Patriots’ misfit mold quite like Blount does. Blount, in his second stint with New England, was claimed on waivers in November after being waived by Pittsburgh for leaving the field early during the Steelers’ win against the Titans on “Monday Night Football.”
Back with the Patriots, Blount didn’t see significant playing time until Week 15 against the Chargers when he rushed for 66 yards on 20 carries. Over the next three games Blount would total 21 carries for 80 yards, including three carries for one yard against Baltimore in the AFC Divisional round. But Blount came alive last week against the Colts, putting up 148 yards and three scores on 30 carries.
When Blount takes the field Sunday, the defense opposing him will be one of the best of the past decade. Seattle ranks first this season in total defense, first in passing defense, and third against the rush. If the Patriots are to have any success against the terrorizing Seattle defense, Blount may have to carry a lot of the offensive load.
Willson won't get the attention from opposing defenses that his tight end counterpart Rob Gronkowski does, but that doesn't mean he will be a non-factor in this Super Bowl. Wide receivers Jermaine Kearse and Doug Baldwin will attract the most attention from New England’s cover corners, Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, so Willson should see more balls thrown his way, especially in the fourth quarter. Willson has saved his best for last, as half of his catches and two of his three touchdowns this season have come in the final 15 minutes.
Willson caught just 22 passes during the regular season, but he averaged an impressive 16.5 yards per grab, making him a great option down the field. Fourteen of those catches also resulted in first downs and he has six receptions for 79 yards and a score thus far in the postseason. Due to Seattle’s efficient read-option run game, Willson could be most effective on play-action passes when linebackers are caught in-between reading the potential handoff to Marshawn Lynch or a Russell Wilson keeper outside of the pocket. The Patriots must also keep Willson in check on blitz packages, as he is averaging more than 14 yards per catch on plays in which defenses bring pressure.
Both Seattle and New England are near the top in the NFL when it comes to protecting the football. While turnovers may be limited in this year’s Super Bowl, the consequences of those turnovers could be the deciding x-factor.
The Seahawks uncharacteristically turned the ball over five times against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, but only surrendered two field goals from those extra possessions, leaving just enough room for Seattle to force overtime by forcing several turnovers of its own. On the other hand, the Patriots led the NFL in the regular season with the fewest turnovers (13) and were second in points off of turnovers (110 points), and net turnover points (+61). If the Seahawks want to raise their second straight Lombardi Trophy, not giving Brady and company extra opportunities will be imperative.
— By Jake Rose
Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the “Splash Brothers” of the Golden State Warriors, and Kyle Korver of the Atlanta Hawks — all of whom are having historically effective seasons from beyond the arc — will participate in the contest. As will Wesley Matthews of the Portland Trail Blazers, and J.J. Redick of the Los Angeles Clippers. This according to Yahoo! Sports — the official announcement from the league is yet to come.
The group is one of the most potent fields to enter the competition in quite some time. While the dunk contest is populated with up-and-comers, the 3-point show will feature the very best in the game at what they do, and all of these players are in their primes.
Curry and Thompson comprise a backcourt that looks likely to go down as the best shooting duo the game has ever seen. And Korver, across the country, is the most potent weapon in an outstanding Hawks offense, flirting with numbers that no one’s achieved before.
An elite club of just six players (Dirk Nowitzki, Larry Bird, Mark Price, Kevin Durant, Reggie Miller and Steve Nash) has shot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three, and 90 percent from the charity stripe over a full season. Korver, through 44 games, has been transcendent with not just a 50-40-90 mark, but an otherwordly 50-50-90 line.
It’s fitting that the star power will be in the shooting contest this year, not the dunking contest. Floor-spacers have been on the rise in the modern state of the game for a while, and this season’s All-Star weekend will put that transition onto center stage.
— John Wilmes
The Blazers, quite quietly, have compiled one of the best records in the NBA, and they’ve done it without everything going as planned. Starting center Robin Lopez has missed 20 games, and crucial small forward Nicolas Batum is having one of his worst years since he entered the league. Much of the Blazers’ ascension is due to the exponential growth of Damian Lillard’s game, but Stotts deserves credit for Portland’s defense improving considerably in 2014-15.
5. Kevin McHale, Houston Rockets
Coming into the season, Mr. McHale’s job status couldn’t exactly be described as “secure.” His Rockets petered out early in last year’s playoffs, falling 4-2 in the first round to the Trail Blazers and often looking disorganized and uninspired as they did so. But McHale has helped shape Houston into something more fierce this year: a defense-first team that falls in line behind MVP front-runner James Harden, and plays selflessly. Harden deserves a lion share of credit for a better Houston with his emergence as a top-five force — as does the continued defensive dominance of Dwight Howard — but McHale has certainly earned himself a nod too.
4. Stan Van Gundy, Detroit Pistons
The Pistons’ post-Josh Smith turnaround is one of the more remarkable transformations within recent NBA memory. By kicking the highest-paid player off the team, Van Gundy (who also runs basketball operations in Detroit) created eminent authority for himself and made the necessary platform on which to effect change. But nobody saw things turning this quickly — the Pistons went on a 12-3 tear after shedding Smith, looking suddenly purpose-driven and anchored by a set of shrewd Van Gundy principles. He hasn’t done a full season of excellent work, but Stan gets recognition for one of the most uncanny months in NBA coaching history.
3. Jason Kidd, Milwaukee Bucks
It’s hard to believe how quickly Jason Kidd has brought change to Milwaukee. Last year’s worst team in basketball, the Bucks are a playoff team who surpassed their 2013-14 win total before we even hit 2015. And they’ve done it with minimal roster change: Their biggest transaction was drafting Jabari Parker at No. 2 overall, and the rookie left the team with a torn ACL more than a month ago. The team’s turnaround has been more about Kidd’s sense of direction than anything; under his tutelage, the young squad has become one of the very best defenses in the league. Be afraid of Kidd’s team as they go forward and get more experience under their belts.
2. Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors
No first-year coach has ever had a better record than Kerr does with the Warriors. This is in keeping with the former 3-point shooting ace’s biography: Be it either through correlation or causation, nearly every basketball scenario he’s been involved with has seem blessed. Golden State was a good team before Kerr came, but now they’re a great one. Their league-leading 36-6 record owes much to his maximization of their wide array of shooters, passers, defenders and all-around ballers.
1. Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks
In any other year, Kerr’s historic start would launch him into the clear top spot in the race to the top of the coaching hierarchy. But what coach Bud is doing in Atlanta is simply amazing. A team with zero superstars has been nearly perfect since late November, amassing a 30-2 record over their last 32 games. And they’re doing it in a way that only a team with an elite coach can: through exquisite passing, mutual trust, and top-to-bottom sacrifice in the name of a greater good. Budenholzer’s Popovichian system is the star for the Hawks, and the open man is their go-to scorer. If they keep this up, there won’t be a team who can beat them out of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
— John Wilmes
One way or the other, history will be made when the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks meet in Super Bowl XLIX this Sunday. Either Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will win their fourth Super Bowl rings, tying for the most among their respective positions, or the Seahawks will become just the seventh franchise in history to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
Coming up with five definitive reasons for why the New England Patriots will win any game, let alone a Super Bowl, is difficult. That’s not because they are unlikely to win, obviously; you are just never sure how they are going to do it.
The Patriots’ biggest strength under Bill Belichick has always been the ability to adapt to their opponent. Give him extra prep time like he has for a Super Bowl, and you can bet Belichick will find something about the Seahawks to exploit that no one saw coming.
But since we’re supposed to be the experts, and “just because” isn’t going to cut it, here are five reasons the Patriots come out on the winning side on Sunday.
Critics will point out Brady hasn’t won a Super Bowl in 10 years, and there’s no denying that fact. But you’d still be hard-pressed to find many postseason defeats that you can lay at Brady’s feet. He hasn’t thrown games away.
Still, he knows the critics are there, and since a Week 4 loss to Kansas City sparked whispers that he was no longer an elite quarterback, he has been as good as ever. Throw in the whole “Deflategate” fiasco, and Brady comes into this game with a giant chip on his shoulder.
But even beyond his motivations, Brady is just not likely to give the Seahawks any freebies. While many elite QBs become their own worst enemy by forcing passes to their top receivers or at an elite corner (Richard Sherman?) just to show that they can, Brady has always been content to take what is given. If that means dumping the ball off 15 times to a running back, he’ll do it.
Of course, Brady does have a favorite target …
The Gronkowski factor
Seattle has two very good safeties in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, and against most teams they are made better by the fact that they don’t have to worry about helping CB Richard Sherman. But New England is not most teams.
The equation changes against the Patriots because tight end Rob Gronkowski is their biggest weapon in the passing game. Seattle can’t just put Sherman on an island against him and dare the Pats to throw at him.
So now the Seahawks will need to pick their poison: Commit to stopping the run and leave Gronkowski in single coverage, or double-cover Gronkowski and risk the Patriots exploiting a run defense that was good on paper (third in the NFL in yards allowed in the regular season) but has allowed more than 130 yards on the ground to both Carolina and Green Bay in the postseason.
Seattle’s passing game won’t scare the Pats
This is one area where we are giving Belichick the benefit of the doubt a bit. While the Patriots were a top 10 defense against the run, they were vulnerable at times: Excluding the meaningless loss in the season finale, New England allowed 176 yards per game on the ground in its three other losses.
On the other hand, two of those losses were in September, and the other was against Green Bay, whose passing game gave the Pats more to worry about. Seattle’s passing game carries with it no such concerns.
No NFL team threw the ball less than Seattle in the regular season, and the Seahawks ranked 27th in passing yards. None of the receivers will strike fear into a Pats defense that ranked fourth in pass coverage according to ProFootballFocus.com.
We’re betting Belichick and the Patriots will find a way to stop the run and force Seattle to beat them through the air. Even if Russell Wilson doesn’t give the ball away like he did in the NFC title game, can he win a passing duel with Tom Brady? Not likely.
New England won’t give the game away
Perhaps we are guilty of overreacting to a couple of high-profile games here, but it’s hard to imagine the Patriots playing things the way the Packers did in the NFC title game or making big mistakes like the Broncos did in last year’s Super Bowl.
History tells us Belichick will not play safe and kick field goals the way Green Bay did if given the chance to put Seattle in an early hole. And while there may be no tangible evidence one way or the other, can you imagine a Belichick-coached team bungling an onside kick?
And while we’d never suggest that Super Bowl XLVIII was just a couple big plays from going Denver’s way, when was the last time New England gave up a safety, interception return TD and a special teams TD in the same game? Right from the first snap over Peyton Manning’s head, Denver looked unprepared, overmatched, or both.
The Patriots will be none of those things.
The Pats vs. The World
This isn’t about a rousing pep talk before the game. As dominant as New England has been for 14 seasons now, Belichick can’t exactly play the “Nobody believes in us!” card. (And “They think we win because we cheat!” isn’t much better.)
But even before the whole “Deflategate” thing, this game was destined to have a huge impact on how history views Belichick and Brady. Winning Super Bowls 10 years apart with everything else changing around them would be unprecedented. And while their first three titles can’t be taken away, there is a huge difference between 4-2 in the big game vs. 3-3 with a three-game losing streak.
It also may be their last chance. Brady and the Pats recently restructured his contract to create cap space, but it also made it easier for them to part ways. Even if he sticks around, there’s no guarantee they ever get back here.
None of that will help them complete a pass or tackle Marshawn Lynch. In fact, maybe all that proves their best days are long behind them. But do you really want to bet against them?
— By John Gworek
A recent report from Michael Lee of the Washington Post reveals that Kobe Bryant wanted out of L.A. as a youngster, so he could join his idol Michael Jordan during his two-year victory lap with the Washington Wizards. The plan dissolved when Jordan and then-owner of the D.C. squad, Abe Pollin, parted ways in 2003. Jordan, of course, went on to become the majority owner of another team down south, while Bryant became one of the few legends of the NBA to stick with one team for nearly two decades.
Bryant tore his rotator cuff recently, and his team has announced that the 36-year-old is out for the season. Many are speculating that Bryant could retire, and not play out the final year of his contract with the Lakers. And while that’s just the stuff of rumors for now, something else has become clear: Bryant’s not long for the sport, and he has fewer and fewer reasons to keep secrets from anyone about what’s happened over his 19-year career.
Kobe’s confirmation of his past desire to team up with Jordan could be just the first of many titillating details to come out about the behind-the-scenes tales of his NBA life. This story tells us something we already know — that Bryant loved Jordan probably even more than all of us who watched him so rapturously in the '80s and '90s — and also gives us a fascinating rabbit hole to go down. What would Kobe — and the league — have been like with the greatest player of all time whispering advice over his shoulder?
— John Wilmes
Just as he was turning into the best player of his life — and one of the NBA’s most impactful players in the month of January — Detroit Pistons point guard Brandon Jennings has had his health and glory stolen from him by the cruel thief that is fate.
Jennings went down and left the game Saturday night against the Milwaukee Bucks, after 26 minutes of play. He did not return, and his team announced Sunday that he’d be out for the season with a ruptured left Achilles tendon.
As far as hard news in the 2014-15 season goes, this bit just about sucks the most. Jennings had been an erratic player through his career under a combined four coaches in five seasons with the Pistons and Bucks, and it was heartening and exciting to see him tap into his deep potential with his fifth in Stan Van Gundy. The Pistons have been one of the hottest teams in the league lately, and it’s had a ton to do with B.J.
In January, Jennings put up a terrific 20.9 points per game on 44 percent shooting, to go with 7.2 assists. He was one of the very most efficient players in the game over the month. He even entered history with a 21-assist game.
The easier news to swallow, for Pistons fans, is that their team is still in fairly good condition to make the playoffs. Behind Jennings in the depth chart is D.J. Augustin, a speedy dynamo who flourished with the Chicago Bulls last year under similar conditions, when he was signed mid-season after Derrick Rose went down with a torn meniscus.
Augustin started for Detroit in a 114-110 loss to the Toronto Raptors, but the L was hardly his fault. D.J. stepped in for B.J. with a crazy good performance, turning in 35 points — including five three-pointers — and eight assists.
— John Wilmes
A month ago, 25-year-old Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside was looking like he wasn’t long for the NBA. Over 19 total career games with the Sacramento Kings in 2010 through 2012 and very few minutes, the seven-footer hadn’t earned himself a solidified spot in the pros — not even on the end of benches.
He’d been out of the league for the better part of two seasons when this January happened. Miami’s reclamation project has boomed as Whiteside is suddenly looking like one of the most dominant big men in the league. No performance more clearly announced Hassan’s arrival more than his triple-double against the Chicago Bulls yesterday afternoon, on national TV.
Whiteside led the Heat to an impressive 96-84 victory, collecting 14 points, 13 rebounds and an otherworldly 12 blocks in just 25 minutes. No player has ever tallied a triple-double including blocks in so few minutes. He also took the cake in the category of post-game interviews, referencing his NBA 2K numbers right after his performance:
In January, Whiteside has shot 72 percent from the floor, averaging 12.1 points, eight rebounds and three blocks in 21.4 minutes per game — I want to play that video game. His overwhelming presence in the lane has added some stability to Miami’s attack in a transitional year, and drastically changed the future outlook for his franchise. While Whiteside’s unbelievable play of Sunday afternoon is not likely to be maintained, he certainly looks like the Heat’s best starting center since Alonzo Mourning.
“Hassanity” has become the buzzword for Whiteside’s surge into basketball’s mainstream, and it’s an appropriate one. Not since Jeremy Lin’s flurry of clutch scoring in 2012 has a player burst out of obscurity with such force. Stay tuned as one of the season’s best stories continues.
— John Wilmes
Funny thing about it: Mike Budenholzer, of the 35-8 Atlanta Hawks, wasn’t even a head coach two years ago this time. Neither was first-year Golden State Warriors man Steve Kerr, who’s led his team to a franchise-best 34-6 start.
Change happens fast in the contemporary, parity-driven NBA, and these two men might as well be the faces of it. Both coaches have improved their teams mightily by getting them to play their most selfless ball possible, trusting each other and some firm principles on defense, and moving the ball around fluidly to a vast array of deep-shooting talent on offense.
At time of publication, The Warriors and Hawks are No. 1 and No. 2 in 3-point field goal percentage, respectively.
Budenholzer and Kerr also share the common ground of a history with renowned San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Budenholzer was an assistant under Pop for the majority of his stint in San Antonio, while Kerr played for the Spurs toward the end of his career, winning two titles with the team.
While the All-Star game is all about hijinks, levity and celebrity, this coaching showdown could very well prove to augur more serious stuff — the Hawks and Warriors are on a collision course in the NBA Finals. It’s just January, so there’s plenty of time for that to change; but there’s a fair chance we’ll look back on this event as the beginning of an epic NBA rivalry.
For now, the All-Star game can wait, but you certainly shouldn’t miss basketball’s two best teams as they finally square off two weeks from today in Atlanta.
— John Wilmes
One of the last guardians of the NBA’s fading generation of old superstars, Kobe Bryant, may be seeing the end of his road a little sooner than expected.
The Los Angeles Lakers announced Thursday that their 36-year-old legend has a torn rotator cuff. ESPN’s Baxter Holmes and Ramona Shelburne say that many within the organization fear that Kobe will need season-ending surgery. If that’s the case, Bryant will have played 35 games in a season in which he’s being paid $24 million to lead a 12-31 Lakers squad into the draft lottery.
Things aren’t ending as well as they started for Bryant. The Lakers traded for Bryant after the Charlotte Hornets drafted him, and then for a decade and a half he played almost exclusively in important games, on important teams. He was always near his sport’s competitive zenith. But now, the Black Mamba is more of a mascot than a feared competitor, yukking it up with LeBron on the sideline as L.A. loses and the next wave of top ballers takes things over permanently.
The Lakers are stuck in a strange purgatory until Kobe’s fate is known for good. As long as he’s around, it’s hard to see a new era starting. The franchise will likely proceed as a sort of traveling nostalgia act until they gut the roster and adopt a fresh direction.
Some have speculated that this is happening — that general manager Mitch Kupchak has allowed the team to go on in their current fashion because it’s leading them right where they need to be: atop the NBA Draft.
Whether or not this is the case, it’s certainly a strange time to be a Lakers fan. One of the proudest, most accomplished outfits in all of pro sporting is in a lull, and Bryant is the breathing symbol of their sitting on the fence between gold and whatever’s much worse than bronze.
— John Wilmes
According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, the NBA has already decided upon four exciting contestants for their annual All-Star weekend slam dunk contest — to be held on Saturday February 14, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. Here are those four advance names:
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
A 6’11” sensation from Greece, Giannis is also a delightful character; a twenty-year-old with wide eyes about fame and America, who the NBA has proudly begun to tailor into one of the upcoming new faces of their game. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s capable of doing things like this:
Like many of his fellow All-Star dunkers, Giannis will also be partaking in the Rising Stars challenge. The catch this year? The game won’t pit sophomores and rookies against each other, but will instead draw from the pool of second- and first-year players to pit USA against the Giannis and the rest of his World squad.
Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic
No one has benefitted more from the Magic’s new uptempo style than Victor Oladipo. It gives him a chance to get up and down the floor and let his athleticism do the talking for him. Like this:
Victor also has a secret weapon in store in the event that the contest still allows for one cooperative dunk with a teammate: savant passer and fellow Magic guard Elfrid Payton.
Mason Plumlee, Brooklyn Nets
You might have a hard time distinguishing Mason from his brother Miles, a center with the Phoenix Suns. The most clear difference between them, though, is Mason’s ability to perform dances like this around the rim:
It’s a down year for the Nets and New York Knicks — the co-host franchises of this year’s midseason celebration. But if Plumlee can win this contest as an underdog contestant, it’ll provide a bright spot for NYC on this glitzy weekend.
Zach LaVine, Minnesota Timberwolves
Next to Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine makes for the most hoptastic young backcourt in the league. Some of the LaVine dunking Vines in circulation are straight-up hard to believe:
This guy, with an open invitation to make music out of basketball with the world’s attention? I won’t be missing it.
— John Wilmes
As Derrick Rose would assert, nobody in their locker room is clicking too well these days. "Everybody has to be on the same page," Rose told reporters after a 108-94 shellacking at the hands of Cleveland. "Until then, we're going to continue to get our ass kicked. It's just the whole team. I think communication is huge. We’re quiet when we're out there, and it's leading to them getting easy baskets. We got to give a better effort. It seems like we're not even competing, and it's f---ing irritating.”
While such pronounced profanity isn’t common for Rose, stern lectures from his coach are. "We got to decide when enough's enough," Thibodeau said after the loss to the Cavs. "The way we're playing is not acceptable, so we have to change it.”
Some familiar vultures have begun to swirl around Thibodeau and his job security. Bulls experts have long speculated that the coach’s intensity is a double-edged sword; despite his fiery approach often turning the Bulls into relentless warriors, it also seems linked to their constant injury troubles.
The latest Bull to hit the hurt list is 2014 Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah. After lighting the NBA on fire last season, Noah got knee surgery over the summer and has been hobbled by a collection of maladies throughout 2014-15. In order for the Bulls to play up to championship expectations, they need the elite, volcano version of Noah — who simply hasn’t been existent this year.
My prediction? Just as it did Cleveland, the hysteria in Chicago will die down as soon as the Bulls — a talented, driven team who are simply going through a dog-days slump — put together a few quality victories. Catch Chicago try to get things back on track tonight, as they square off against the San Antonio Spurs at home, at 8:00 PM ET on TNT.
— John Wilmes
6. Orlando Magic
The Magic haven’t whiffed the mainstream’s attention since Dwight Howard left town via trade in 2012. And while the current 15-29 version of the team hasn’t changed that, they’re a steadily improving young squad with a collection of fascinating players who’ve quickly made them a top watch for hardcore NBA followers. Rookie point guard Elfrid Payton is a stormy, aggressive player who can often turn the task of guarding other ball-handlers into a sort of mid-court wrestling match. The monstrous Nikola Vucevic is one of the best post scorers in the game. And sophomore stud Victor Oladipo — the smooth complement to Payton’s rough-and-tumble approach — is blossoming in the Magic’s increasingly uptempo offense. Look for the Magic to enter the Eastern Conference playoff picture next year.
5. Sacramento Kings
Despite hitting a frustrating rough patch after ownership prematurely canned beloved head coach Mike Malone, Kings fans have cause for optimism. It’s hard not to hold hope when you’ve got DeMarcus Cousins on your roster. Cousins, a dominant 24-year-old center, is arguably the best offensive big man beast this side of Shaquille O’Neal. At 6’11” and 270 pounds, he can knock over just about anyone who defends him — but he can also dance around most matchups with ease. Cousins is fleet of foot and has quick hands and an accurate shot to boot. His nickname, “Boogie,” is a result of his uncanny movement for someone his size. Paired with a rejuvenated Rudy Gay, DeMarcus looks to be in position to take the league by storm. As soon as Vivek Ranadive gets out of the way, expect the Kings’ ascension to continue.
4. Utah Jazz
The Jazz have quietly piled up the best assemblage of young big men in the game. The emergence of freakishly long, crazily athletic French rim-protector Rudy Gay has turned Turkish center Enes Kanter into a luxury asset, as has the best season of power forward Derrick Favors’ career. There aren’t a ton of openings coming up in the stacked Western Conference, but the Jazz might grab one with force if they keep building what they’re building with shrewd first-year coach Quin Snyder. And if lightning-quick Australian rookie point guard Dante Exum begins to blossom behind Gordon Hayward on the wing next year, their seizure of a playoff spot might happen sooner than expected.
3. New Orleans Pelicans
Anthony Davis has been heralded as the next big NBA superstar, and for good reason. The Unibrow is as long as anyone in the sport, and also as skilled. But that doesn’t mean the Pelicans should be much above their .500 mark yet — Davis is still 21 years old. As far as 21-year-old centerpieces go, New Orleans couldn’t do better. But they’ve still got a lot of work to do. For now, the Pelicans are about where they should be: still looking for the right complementary pieces to put around Davis he continues to improve year after year. Soon enough, he’ll be so good that whoever’s around him will be better by virtue of his proximity. That’s the greatness Davis is headed toward.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
Through injuries, youth, the enigma of Larry Sanders and a new regime under coach Jason Kidd and fresh ownership, the Bucks have been very impressive. At 21-20, they’re bound for the Eastern Conference postseason, and way ahead of the development curve many analysts had laid out for them. Multi-talented “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo has a lot to do with Milwaukee’s success, but so does their undersung leading scorer, Brandon Knight. The rest of it is a strong system, bought into by Kidd’s spry roster. Under his tutelage, they’re the third-most efficient defense in the league. Who said you need lots of experience to defend well as a team?
1. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons remain one of the most curious stories of the NBA season. After struggling out of the gate to a 5-23 record, Detroit amazingly turned things around after sending struggling forward Josh Smith — their highest-paid player — out the door on waivers. Motor City basketball is 11-3 in the exciting post-Smith era, rallying around coach Stan Van Gundy’s vision and the breakout of Brandon Jennings, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. As quickly as it happened, the Pistons might have already moved out of the “up-and-coming” category. These days, it looks like they’ve already arrived.
— John Wilmes
Waiters has looked more engaged defensively and more confident with his role and motions in the OKC offense. Reigning MVP Kevin Durant predicted an uptick in Waiters’ productivity, saying "we're going to make him feel wanted. I don't think he's felt that the last few years.”
Six games into his Thunder tenure, Waiters seems to be enjoying the extra affirmation and encouragement his new team offers him. Dion turned in an especially on-point performance in the Thunder’s recent 127-115 victory over the Golden State Warriors — OKC’s biggest win of the season. Waiters dropped 21 points on 8-for-16 shooting in the game, to go with four rebounds and three steals. He helped create a defensive swarm that held MVP frontrunner Steph Curry to one of his worst outings of the year.
After he scored 16 points in a win over the Orlando Magic the following night, he offered a pretty straight-forward as to why he’s a better, happier basketball player in a fresh uniform. Per Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman:
“Waiters was asked what he’s learned so far about where his shots will come from and how he fit into the offense.
“‘Listen,’ he said, ‘they give me the ball. Like, I touch the ball. Like, I actually, like, you know, touch the ball.’ [...]
“‘I’m able to feel the game out, knowing when to take the shot, when not to. Like I said, we got a great group of guys on this team who’s very unselfish and they want you to be successful. So I think I came into a great situation.’”
— John Wilmes
Being a future Hall of Famer does not guarantee a trip to the Super Bowl. In fact, many of the game’s greatest players never took the field with the Vince Lombardi Trophy on the line. Here are some of the game’s best to have never made it to Super Sunday.
1. Barry Sanders, RB, DET (1989-98)
Playoff record: 1–5
Best team: 1991 Lions (12–4 record, lost in NFC Championship Game)
Closest call: 1991 (NFC Championship Game, 41–10 loss at Redskins)
After winning his playoff debut 38–6 against the Cowboys, Sanders lost his next five postseason games. Shockingly, one of the most exciting players of all-time was limited to 13 or fewer carries in four of his six playoff contests. The only time No. 20 was given more than 20 carries, he ripped off 169 yards in a 28–24 loss to the Packers. Although Sanders ran wild every year on Thanksgiving Day, he never showed up to the party on Super Bowl Sunday.
2. Deacon Jones, DE (1961-74)
Playoff record: 0–2
Best team: 1967 Rams (11–1–2 record, lost in Divisional Round)
Closest call: 1969 (Divisional Round, 23–20 loss at Vikings)
The “Secretary of Defense” was known for head-slapping opposing offensive linemen, but the two-time Defensive Player of the Year must have been doing some head-scratching after retiring with zero playoff wins on three different teams — and zero Super Bowl appearances — despite an unofficial total of 173.5 sacks during his Hall of Fame career.
3. Dick Butkus, LB (1965-73)
Playoff record: 0–0
Best team: 1965 Bears (9–5 record, missed postseason)
Arguably the greatest middle linebacker in history, Butkus played for George Halas — the legendary coach whose name graces the trophy awarded to the winner of the NFC Championship Game — and on the same team as Hall of Fame triple-threat playmaker Gale Sayers. Despite looking great on paper at the time and even better in historical hindsight, Butkus’ Bears were unable to make the playoffs, which is the first step toward advancing to the Super Bowl.
4. Gale Sayers, RB (1965-71)
Playoff record: 0–0
Best team: 1965 Bears (9–5 record, missed postseason)
Butkus and Sayers were drafted Nos. 3 and 4 overall, respectively, by the Bears in 1965. But the Hall of Fame duo were unable to translate their individual achievements into team success. Sayers notched a record six TDs in a single game — with nine carries for 113 yards and four TDs, two catches for 89 yards and one TD, and five punt returns for 134 yards and one TD as a rookie — but failed to score even a single Super Bowl trip.
5. Earl Campbell, RB (1978-85)
Playoff record: 3–3
Best team: 1979 Oilers (11–5 record, lost in AFC Championship Game)
Closest call: 1979 (AFC Championship Game, 27–13 loss at Steelers)
The “Luv Ya Blue” bulldozer was unable to take down the powerful “Steel Curtain” during back-to-back AFC Championship Game losses. In two painful defeats at Pittsburgh, Campbell had a combined 39 carries for 77 yards (1.97 ypc), two catches for 15 yards, and zero TDs. Campbell’s two scoreless games against the Steelers were the only two playoff games in which he failed to find the end zone.
6. O.J. Simpson, RB (1969-79)
Playoff record: 0–1
Best team: 1974 Bills (9–5 record, lost in Divisional Round)
Closest call: 1974 (Divisional Round, 32–14 loss at Steelers)
Another victim of the mighty Steelers, the Juice had better luck than Campbell — with 18 touches for 86 total yards and one TD — but was unable to lead the Bills to victory in what would be his only postseason appearance. The actor and defendant never basked in the spotlight of the Super Bowl but he was seen by millions during his days as Lt. Nordberg in the "Naked Gun" franchise and his starring role in the Trial of the Century.
7. Eric Dickerson, RB (1983-93)
Playoff record: 2–5
Best team: 1985 Rams (11–5 record, lost in NFC Championship Game)
Closest call: 1985 (NFC Championship Game, 24–0 loss at Bears)
Upon first glance, the single-season rushing yards record holder posted solid playoff numbers. But take off the goggles and you’ll see that Dickerson’s 248-yard, two-TD outburst during a 20–0 win over the Cowboys in 1985 accounted for one-third of his career postseason rushing yards and half of his total TDs.
8. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB (2001-11)
Playoff record: 4–5
Best team: 2006 Chargers (14–2 record, lost in Divisional Round)
Closest call: 2010 (AFC Championship Game, 24–19 loss at Steelers)
Infamously sulking on the sideline, injured and wearing in a Darth Vader facemask and trench coat at New England — after just two carries for five yards — was clearly the low point of L.T.’s playoff career. Staying on the dark side, three of his five playoff losses were by margins of three points, one defeat came by four points and the most lopsided was a nine-pointer.
9. Tony Gonzalez, TE (1997-2013)
Playoff record: 1–6
Best team: 2003 Chiefs (13–3 record, lost in Divisional Round)
Closest call: 2012 (NFC Championship Game, 28–24 loss vs. 49ers)
It took Gonzo 16 seasons to finally earn a playoff win. Then, with the Falcons holding a 17–0 lead over the 49ers in the NFC title game, it looked like the future Hall of Fame tight end would be punching his ticket to the Super Bowl and possibly riding off into the sunset as a champion. The massive comeback by the Niners would be the all-time great’s final playoff game.
10. Warren Moon, QB (1984-2000)
Playoff record: 3–7
Best team: 1993 Oilers (12–4 record, lost in Divisional Round)
Closest call: 1993 (Divisional Round, 28–20 loss vs. Chiefs)
Moon won five consecutive Grey Cups and was twice named Grey Cup MVP in the Canadian Football League. But in these United States south of the border, the former CFL champion was unable to translate his prior success to the NFL Playoffs. Moon’s waning moment came in the worst collapse in postseason history, as his Oilers watched a 35–3 lead evaporate into a 41–38 overtime loss against the Frank Reich-led Bills.
Add another line item to James Harden’s MVP resume. The Houston Rockets star scored 45 points against the Indiana Pacers last night, and did it with extreme efficiency. The Beard was 12-for-18 from the field, and 14-for-15 from the charity strike. Watch him run up his box-score digits:
The Rockets won the game 110-98, to improve to 29-13 on the season, good for fourth place in the loaded Western Conference.
"I think the way we came out, that's the way we should come out every single game," Harden said after the game. "We focused on defense and offensively making it easy for each other. They didn't gain any ground on us because we kept being consistent with what we did.”
It’s refreshing to see Harden take on such a bold, team-leading role in his sixth season as a pro. Last year, he looked emotionally pained as he adjusted to the pressures of being the best player on a title-contending team, when Dwight Howard came to town and elevated the Rockets’ competitive status. Harden’s defense demonstrably suffered as he took on extra heat from the limelight.
But now he’s on the short list of players you’d want to build a team around, and his coach Kevin McHale has noticed the transformation. "He's having a special year," McHale said after the victory over the Pacers. "A couple of those shots he made, there's nothing a defender can do.”
At 26.6 points per game, Harden is currently leading the league in scoring. More importantly, he’s become a member of some of the best defensive lineups in basketball — the Rockets have the second-most efficient defense in the sport, and they’re markedly more scary because of it.
Catch Harden and Houston as they look for revenge against the league-leading Golden State Warriors this Wednesday, at 10:30 PM ET on ESPN. Steph Curry and Co. dismantled the Rockets, 131-106, this past Saturday.
— John Wilmes
That was before James became a coach-killer, Love lost his mojo, and the most hyped team of the decade got buried under a barrage of hysteria and dysfunction caused by unmet expectations.
Good thing for the Cavs: The season is long. Mediocrity in early January means little in a league where the stakes don’t rise until April, and Cleveland has swiftly improved after trading Dion Waiters, Lou Amundson and some draft picks for Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.
The new-look Cavaliers spanked one of their top conference rivals, the Chicago Bulls, last night. Cleveland point guard Kyrie Irving tallied 18 points and 12 assists as his team prevailed, 108-94. This one was a quick knockout, as the Cavs amassed a 14-point lead in the second quarter and never really looked back.
The Bulls, to their credit, are in a bad way. Losers of six of their last eight contests, they’re without 2014 Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, and starting small forward Mike Dunleavy. But what Cleveland did last night was a statement game nonetheless; they may not put together the perfect season, but they have more than enough talent to scare the rest of the sport.
The Cavs still have a lot of work to do if they’re to be championship contenders this spring. A three-game winning streak is nice (especially if two of the wins are against elite teams) but it doesn’t put you into the rare air of squads like the Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks — who, combined, have less than half of Cleveland’s losses. With LeBron leading the way, though, such company seems inevitable these days.
— John Wilmes
History says the New England Patriots might want to save some of Sunday’s good fortune for the Super Bowl against the Seahawks.
New England’s 45-7 rout of Indianapolis in the AFC Championship Game Sunday was the biggest blowout in a conference title game since the 2000 season and one of the biggest of the last 30 years.
What could that mean for the Super Bowl? Four of the last five teams to win an AFC or NFL championship game in blowout fashion ended up losing in the Super Bowl.
But as great teams from San Francisco and Chicago in the 1980s can vouch, that kind of momentum can carry over into the Super Bowl.
Here’s a look at the biggest AFC/NFC title game blowouts since 1984 and how the winners fared in the Super Bowl.
2014: New England 45, Indianapolis 7
Patriots’ Super Bowl result: TBD
This was New England’s biggest AFC title win by far but not a huge surprise given the opponent; it marked the Pats sixth straight win over the Colts. And the average score of the last four — all since Andrew Luck joined the Colts — is 47-18.
2006: Chicago 39, New Orleans 14
Bears’ Super Bowl result: Lost to Indianapolis, 29-17.
This was actually a two-point game in the third quarter (16-14) before a Bears safety and three fourth-quarter touchdowns. Chicago used a familiar script, wearing down New Orleans (46 rushes for 196 yards) and taking advantage of turnovers (three fumbles, one interception).
In Super Bowl XLI, the script was flipped on the Bears. The Colts ran it 42 times for 191 yards, held the ball for more than 38 minutes and forced five Chicago turnovers to give Peyton Manning his only championship.
2005: Seattle 34, Carolina 14
Seahawks’ Super Bowl result: Lost to Pittsburgh, 21-10.
This one was never in doubt as Seattle was up 17-0 one play into the second quarter and never let the Panthers into the game. The Seahawks rushed 51 times for 190 yards (132 by Shaun Alexander) and held the ball for almost 42 minutes.
The officials became the story of Super Bowl XL as Seattle fans still wonder what could have been if not for a questionable holding call that turned first-and-goal at the Pittsburgh 1 into first-and-20 at the 29 in a 14-10 game.
2000: N.Y. Giants 41, Minnesota 0
Giants’ Super Bowl result: Lost to Baltimore, 34-7.
The Giants scored two touchdowns in the first 2:07 and never looked back in one of the most dominating postseason performances ever. Kerry Collins threw for 381 yards and five TDs as New York outgained Minnesota 518-114. The Vikings had the ball for less than 18 minutes, which will happen when you turn it over five times and pick up only nine first downs.
It all came crashing down for Collins and the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. They did not score an offensive touchdown against the Ravens’ dominant defense, avoiding a shutout only thanks to a kickoff return score. New York gained just 152 yards and turned the ball over five times in the loss.
1991: Washington 41, Detroit 10
Redskins’ Super Bowl result: Beat Buffalo, 37-24.
Washington forced turnovers on Detroit’s first two possessions but led just 17-10 at halftime. The second half was all Redskins as Mark Rypien threw two touchdowns and Darrell Green returned an interception for another score. Barry Sanders carried just 11 times for 44 yards for the Lions, who have not won a playoff game since.
Despite the smaller margin, Washington’s win over Buffalo in Super Bowl XVI got out of hand much more quickly thanks in part to five Buffalo turnovers. The Redskins led 24-0 and 37-10 before two late touchdowns set the final.
1990: Buffalo 51, L.A. Raiders 3
Bills’ Super Bowl result: Lost to N.Y. Giants, 20-19.
This one was over early as Buffalo led 21-3 after one quarter on its way to an NFL playoff record 41 points in the first half. Jim Kelly threw for 300 yards, and Thurman Thomas racked up 138 of the Bills’ 202 yards rushing. Buffalo forced seven turnovers, including five Jay Schroeder interceptions.
Buffalo’s no-huddle offense watched most of Super Bowl XXV from the sidelines as the Giants rushed for 172 yards and held the ball for more than 40 minutes. Still, thanks in large part to Thomas’ 190 yards from scrimmage, the game wasn’t decided until Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal with less than 10 seconds to play.
1989: San Francisco 30, L.A. Rams 3
49ers’ Super Bowl result: Beat Denver, 55-10.
The 27-point win in the NFC title game was actually the closest contest among the 49ers’ three postseason wins. After routing Minnesota (41-13), San Francisco avenged one of its two regular season losses by reeling off 30 unanswered points after falling behind 3-0 to the Rams. Joe Montana completed 26 of 30 passes for 262 yards, and the defense intercepted Jim Everett three times.
Montana earned MVP honors in Super Bowl XXIV as he threw five touchdowns in a 55-10 rout of Denver. The 49ers led 27-3 and the half and stretched the lead to 41-3 at one point. The defense held John Elway to 10-of-26 passing for 108 yards and two interceptions in handing him his third Super Bowl loss.
1988: San Francisco 28, Chicago 3
49ers’ Super Bowl result: Beat Cincinnati, 20-16.
Chicago got this far on the strength of a top-five defense and a top-five running game. When Joe Montana hit Jerry Rice twice for touchdowns early, the Bears had little hope of digging out of that hole. Rice finished with 133 yards receiving, and he was just warming up.
In Super Bowl XXIII, Rice earned MVP honors with 11 catches for 215 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown that tied the game at 13. Cincinnati took a 16-13 lead, but Montana hit John Taylor for the winning score with 34 seconds left.
1985: Chicago 24, L.A. Rams 0
Bears’ Super Bowl result: Beat New England, 46-10
The only suspense in this one was whether or not Dieter Brock and the Rams’ 26th-ranked offense could score on the Bears. They couldn’t, and Chicago had its second shutout in as many weeks. Linebacker Wilbur Marshall’s 52-yard interception return TD was the finishing touch.
The Bears actually fell behind New England, 3-0, in Super Bowl XX, but the Pats would not score again until the fourth quarter when it was 44-3. Chicago’s defense forced six turnovers, the sixth time it forced at least five on the season.
1984: San Francisco 23, Chicago 0
49ers’ Super Bowl result: Beat Miami, 38-16.
The 49ers were second in the league in scoring, but the defense held the Bears in check until the offense got going after a 6-0 first half. San Francisco held Chicago to 37 net passing yards on the day as it sacked Steve Fuller nine times, including two each by Fred Dean, Michael Carter and Gary Johnson.
The Niners offense was more than ready for a Super Bowl matchup with the only team that out-scored it in the regular season. Joe Montana threw for 331 yards and three scores, and San Francisco rushed for 211 yards to hand Miami a 38-16 defeat in Dan Marino’s only Super Bowl.
-By John Gworek