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Blake Griffin

WHAT’S in a name? For Blake Griffin, everything. He began building his up as a sophomore with the Sooners, with his outstanding efforts earning for his Consensus National Player of the Year honors. And after being selected first overall in the 2009 National Basketball Association, he added to its luster as a high-flyer with impact, headlining Lob City and, in the process, claiming six All-Star and five All-NBA berths. An acrimonious split with the Clippers followed, and, naturally, he aimed to prove it remained relevant in the pace-and-space era; in his first season with the Pistons, he showed his capacity to retool his game as a big playmaker with range.

Jazz vs Sixers

Even with yesterday’s loss, the Jazz stayed at least three full games clear of the rest of the National Basketball Association heading into the All-Star break. That they were angling for victory despite the comfortable cushion and with the much-needed respite in the horizon would be an understatement. They didn’t simply want to bounce back from a relatively poor outing against the Pelicans. They wanted to get the better of the Sixers, their pace-setting counterparts in the East. And they could well have done so had they not fallen prey to both outstanding hoops and eminently avoidable mistakes.

Exploring depth

Pro hoops fans who weren’t able to see the Sixers make short work of the Pacers yesterday may well consider Joel Embiid’s 24-13-5 output underwhelming at best. After all, he had been putting up stout numbers prior to the homestand — so stout, in fact, as to install him a frontrunner for the Most Valuable Player award. Never mind that he managed to burn rubber for only 27 minutes, six less than his season average. As far as statheads are concerned, the bottom line is what counts — outside, that is, of his efficient 10-of-17 clip from the field and his second-best plus-22 line.

Jazz for real

It’s fair to argue that the Jazz were expected to triumph over the Magic yesterday. After all, they sported a win-loss slate that was at least three and a half games better than the rest of the National Basketball Association. Meanwhile, their hosts were among the worst in the league, eight wins under .500 and much closer to the bottom than to the top. Then again, nothing is etched in stone amid a pandemic that continues to wreak havoc on schedules and rosters alike. And they did head to the Amway Center with a handicap in the absence of starting point guard Mike Conley, arguably the best player in pro hoops annals never to be named an All-Star.

Ups and downs

The Lakers were in trouble long before the curtains drew on yesterday’s ill-fated match against the league-leading Jazz. True, the loss was the fifth in their last six outings, a reflection of their floundering run of late in the absence of ailing Anthony Davis. It also didn’t help that starting guard Dennis Schröder, whose principal task is to ease the playmaking burden foisted on the overworked LeBron James, had to be held out due to health and safety protocols in the middle of their swoon. On the other hand, symptoms of their malady and malaise had been present even at the turn of the year, and through a seven-game win streak that had them at the top of the National Basketball Association standings.

No. 1

Novak Djokovic was his usual confident self when he headed to the Rod Laver Arena for the Australian Open singles final last Sunday. It didn’t matter that he went through a more rigorous test than he envisioned through the last fortnight; his third-round match against gritty Taylor Fritz was particularly testy, lasting all of five sets and forcing him to compete with a torn abdominal oblique muscle from then on. And never mind that he faced red-hot Daniil Medvedev, whose 20-match win streak had a number of quarters wondering if the new batch of talents would finally break through in a major championship. As far as he was concerned, Melbourne Park was his home, and it remained as welcoming as it had been in 2019 and 2020, and in the six other times he went home with the Norman Brooks Challenge Cup.

Herald of new age

For all the narratives about how the Australian Open women’s singles title was up for grabs, it could not have been but Naomi Osaka’s to lose from the outset. For other supposed contenders casting a moist eye on the hardware, it certainly didn’t help that safety protocols wreaked havoc on practice schedules. Forced quarantines threw off the conditioning of hopefuls who had the misfortune of having flown in to the continent on chartered planes with passengers stricken by the novel coronavirus. That said, she was always the conservative choice, and not simply because of a successful run to the championship at the United States Open.

MVP

THE regular season of the National Basketball Association isn’t even close to two-fifths done, and, already, longtime habitués have seen fit to work up a lather over Most Valuable Player candidates. In part, it’s because the pro hoops scene has become an endless source of barber shop talk; fanatics are simply unable to stop trumpeting the virtues of marquee names, especially when compared to others also burning rubber at elite levels. In larger measure, it’s due to the sheer number of legitimate choices on tap; at this point in the 2020-21 campaign, as many as nine stalwarts can be considered for the accolade.

Djokovic injury

Tennis habitués who got to watch Novak Djokovic’s match against Taylor Fritz in the third round of the Australian Open last Friday were treated to a roller-coaster ride that included a stoppage midway in compliance with safety protocols. Owing to the Victorian government’s decision to impose a five-day lockdown in light of the increasing number of COVID-19 cases, play was suspended while spectators lined up in the exits of the Rod Laver Arena at Melbourne Park half an hour before the midnight curfew. At the time, the 27th seed was ahead two sets to one and three to two in the fourth.

Controversial Doyle

Who knows what the Jaguars were thinking when they hired the controversial Chris Doyle as their director of sports performance? All and sundry got wind of their decision when they raised the curtain on newly appointed head coach Urban Meyer’s staff last Thursday. And while most of the names got rave reviews, one received significant pushback. Rightly so, to be sure; inked hadn’t yet dried on the divorce papers the former college fixture was forced to sign with the University of Iowa after allegations of his bias against African-American players surfaced. For a franchise that purports to being dead serious in turning the corner, adding a headache was the last thing it needed.

Vulnerable

National Basketball Association habitués who believe the Lakers to be on track for a successful title defense might want to rethink their position. Not that the stalwarts of the purple and gold aren’t capable of taking the measure of the rest of the league. To the contrary, their roster makeup — shored up during the shortest offseason in the history of pro hoops — appears even better equipped to contend for the hardware the second time around. Unfortunately, their showing of late has been inconsistent at best; in proving unable to continually translate potential to practice, they have looked not just vulnerable, but vulnerable against supposed also-rans.

It could have been transcendent

UBISOFT’S Watch Dogs series shares much of its makeup with Assassin’s Creed, the company’s other sandbox property. Just like its older brother, the Watch Dogs franchise makes heavy use of its large open world, filling it to the brim with quests, storylines, and alternate activities to keep its players entertained. However, where the Assassin’s Creed games eventually played with concepts of magic, myths, and historical tales of knights, assassins, and Vikings, Watch Dogs would follow its science-fiction roots to their natural conclusion. The series has delved further into its dystopian setting, and out of this evolution comes Watch Dogs: Legion, just released and available on the Sony PlayStation 5, PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One, and personal computer.

All-Star Game

There can be no doubting the National Basketball Association’s motivations when it comes to the All-Star Game. At heart, the annual spectacle is the league’s way of thanking fans for their support; its brightest stars take part in a series of exhibitions through an extended weekend. In turn, participation brings about tangible and manifest benefits; not counting the goodwill generated by leading lights, financial incentives come with attendance. For players, the most lucrative offshoots are generated by contractual triggers emanating from being one of 24 named to the featured match.

Cool James

National Basketball Association players are invariably subjected to taunts on the road. Established stars, in particular, find themselves the targets of colorful language from extremely partisan fans. And, of all the marquee names, LeBron James arguably engenders the most visceral reactions. That he does is no surprise, really; considering that he has been such a thorn on the sides of opponents, and for such a long time, it’s next to impossible to ignore him. In fact, he not only expects to be roundly booed in every stop outside of the Staples Center; he welcomes the icy stares and harsh words, having long learned to draw strength from them and use them as motivation to achieve.

Uneven roster

When the Nets pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal that netted them former National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player James Harden, not a few quarters saw fit to underscore their offensive potential. Already blessed with prolific producers Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the addition of the most efficient scorer in the modern era figured to make them a collective juggernaut. And, if nothing else, the numbers they’ve managed to put up in the last two and a half weeks show that the assessment is on the mark. Even counting the 98 they canned in the outlier of a win against the elephant-walking Heat, they’ve normed a whopping 127 points per outing since forming their version of the Big Three.

Luck out

The Lakers headed into their set-to yesterday bent on snapping out of their first losing run of the 2020-21 season of the National Basketball Association. The fact that they managed to go through a full fourth of their campaign to defend their title before suffering from consecutive setbacks may well be deemed an achievement by some quarters, but not by them. For all the handicaps that came with the shortest turnaround in league history, they understood both the privilege and the burden of the embarrassment of riches their roster provides. And so their objective yesterday was clear; they had to win, period.

Sixers vs Lakers

The Lakers’ road win streak wasn’t going to last the length of the season, but they most definitely didn’t want it to end yesterday. They were bent on making a statement against the Sixers, holders of the best record in the East and starring Most Valuable Player candidate Joe Embiid. And for a moment there, it looked as if they would succeed. Despite playing from behind for most of the match, they appeared to set up their desired outcome following an all-too-familiar LeBron James-Anthony Davis connection with 11 seconds left on the clock.

Brady vs Mahomes

So it has come to pass. The Buccaneers will be the first in National Football League history to compete for the title at home. They booked a ticket to the final game of the season via a gutsy stand over the Packers, their third playoff win and second straight against favored opponents. And given their record of futility dating back to their 2007 campaign, their progression has been nothing short of remarkable. Forget head coach Bruce Arians’ insistence that it’s the championship or bust for them. Regardless of how they do against the Chiefs a week and a half from now, they will have exceeded expectations.

Nets defense

Heading into the set-to against the Heat yesterday, head coach Steve Nash conceded that the Nets weren’t built to be a defensive powerhouse. He was underscoring the obvious, to be sure; their mediocre position gave way to an even worse standing once they had to give up significant personnel to acquire former Most Valuable Player James Harden from the Rockets. As excited as he was to consider the potential of his new acquisition alongside offensive stalwarts Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, he admitted that his charges needed to do better on the other end of the court.

Too much talent

As James Harden’s second game with the Nets resulted in both personal and collective triumphs, speculation grew rampant on how the returning Kyrie Irving would accept being downgraded. Pundits logically believed he would be last in the pecking order of the Big Three that also counts Kevin Durant. Considering how he chafed at playing second banana to LeBron James during his Cavaliers days, not a few quarters deemed the development a potentially combustible one. And so they watched his first outing in eight matches yesterday with keen anticipation.

Australian Open

Anticipation quickly turned to frustration as scores of players found themselves unable to leave their hotel rooms in compliance with Australian government rules designed to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. They thought they knew what they were getting into as they arrived in the country for the Australian Open; after all, protocols had been communicated to them way back in mid-December, with the first Grand Slam of the year delayed by three weeks precisely to allow for quarantine measures. What they didn’t plan on was being unable to practice at all — a fate they are now resigned to after others in their chartered flights returned positive tests.

Reputation on the line

As expected, James Harden waxed ecstatic in the aftermath of his first match with the Nets. He would have been happy in any case; he moved to strut his stuff in a uniform other than that of the Rockets since the offseason, so seeing his machinations pay off was in and of itself cause for joy. That he wound up rewriting National Basketball Association history in posting a 30-point triple-double gave him even more reason to celebrate. “Unbelievable,” he said of his experience in helping craft the seven-point victory. And he couldn’t have been more right, because “unbelievable” was exactly how he played.

21-assets deal

James Harden finally got what he wanted. Within a day after publicly declaring he was in a “situation... that I don’t think can be fixed,” he wound up being shipped to the Nets as part of a four-franchise deal involving a stunning 21 assets. It was what he wanted, of course, and he made his sentiments felt way back in a tumultuous offseason that saw erstwhile backcourt partner Russell Westbrook leave in frustration. Since then, he had been on a scorched-earth offensive; he partied instead of practiced, breached health and safety protocols, showed up thoroughly out of shape, sulked his way to poor performances, and alienated teammates with his polarizing words and actions.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: A wonderful piece of software

From the outset, Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla feels like a mish-mash of games, incorporating the very best of its lineage into its makeup.

Eagles at crossroads

Depending on perspective, Doug Pederson’s firing by the Eagles was either shocking or but a logical offshoot of a lost season. Around this time three years ago, he stood on top of the National Football League; he was hailed as a progressive head coach who bested the vaunted Patriots, featuring all-time-great bench tactician Bill Belichick, in the Super Bowl. Now, he’s a declared has-been who supposedly performed so badly as to tarnish the franchise’s singular accomplishment. To his critics, he didn’t simply run his charges down to the ground in the league’s worst division; he did so in a manner that embarrassed all and sundry.

Depleted lineups

Head coach Doc Rivers was most certainly being disingenuous when he called attention to the National Basketball Association’s decision to push through with the Sixers’ homestand against the Nuggets yesterday. “I don’t think we should [play], but it’s not for me to express that,” he argued. He just did, of course, with his convenient sidestep enabling him to steer clear of possible sanction from the Commissioner’s Office for speaking his mind on a development that, for all his protestation, followed standing health and safety protocols.

Rebuilding mode

For National Football League fans, Week 17 has always been hotly anticipated. It’s when playoff seedings are decided, when the scrambling for continued relevance becomes most pronounced, when the run-up comes to a head. And, all things considered, the current season’s iteration didn’t disappoint. Yet, as much as the flurry of activity invariably brought celebration to some quarters and disappointment to others, the spotlight most shone on a development engineered by protagonists whose immediate fate wasn’t affected.

Dominant Curry

It’s never in good form to draw conclusions off a small sample size, and especially from the start of the season. Yet, not a few quarter chose to write the Warriors’ eulogy following blowout setbacks in the first two outings of their 2020-21 campaign. To be fair, the unexpected loss of Klay Thompson due to a freak injury hurt their chances. And, with cornerstone Stephen Curry emerging from a long layoff, even more uncertainty beyond that engendered by the pandemic threatened to hamper their competitiveness.

Uncertainty

The end of 2020 saw Major League Baseball licking its wounds and pondering how it should navigate a new year filled with just as much uncertainty. Considering the potential for continued losses, franchises are determined to cut back on expenses. And, naturally, payroll becomes the first casualty; for the first time in a long while, the offseason, traditionally host to a flurry of activity in which talent is sought by all and sundry, figures to be one of reflection and not action. Except, that is, for the Padres, who see a break while others recoil with caution.

Dominant Brady

When the Buccaneers went after Tom Brady in the offseason, they were dead set on breaking the second-longest playoff drought in the National Football League (NFL). They understood the risks; even as they knew the pluses of getting arguably the best player in history, they acknowledged that he was likewise all of 43 and on the downside of a long pro journey. And it was precisely his extraordinary body of work that made him a question mark moving forward; with 20 extended seasons’ worth of pounding compelling the Patriots to part ways with him, how much more of a beating could he still take?

NBA expansion

National Basketball Association commissioner Adam Silver was his usual candid self in his annual preseason presser yesterday. He responded to queries — even the most sensitive ones — from prying and persistent members of the media directly and with purpose. And he wasn’t doing so to score brownie points with the public, although they were invariably positive offshoots. He was simply being, well, himself, a decided advantage for a league whose status as the most progressive sports organization in the world hasn’t insulated it from the havoc wreaked by the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Charlie Woods

The media statement Tiger Woods put out this time last month wasn’t about his showing at the just-concluded Masters. Considering that he limped to a one-under tally following a final-round 76, he was wise not to comment on a 38th-place finish that left him a whopping 19 strokes behind newly minted champion Dustin Johnson. Instead, he disclosed “how excited I am to be playing with Charlie in our first official tournament together.” He was, of course, referring to his son (who, not coincidentally, was last in the limelight when he won the Green Jacket against all odds in 2019) and their impending participation at the PNC Championship.

Bucks have breathing room to grow

Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t want to wait until the end of the 2020-21 season to decide. He still had a year to go on his contract before becoming a free agent, and he could have used the time to exert maximum pressure on the Bucks. As the reigning National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year, he certainly had the power to hold his employers — and, yes, would-be suitors — hostage. Instead of wielding it just as other stars in the same position did, however, he made it irrelevant. He went with what he thought to be right. He went with his heart.

Self-inflicted wounds

Kyrie Irving finally saw fit to talk to members of the media yesterday, and he delved on the reasons he hitherto chose not to since training camp began on Dec. 1.

NBA transactions

“I want to retire a Clipper,” a seemingly committed Paul George said in front of the assembled media the other week. His disclosure didn’t raise eyebrows. Quite the opposite, in fact; he had made similar pledges of loyalty during his time with the Pacers and Thunder, so the reaction to his latest vow was tepid at best. He had been there and done that, and even casual observers knew his actions to be far more revealing than his words. It likewise didn’t help that he played poorly in the immediate past playoffs, after which he went about pointing fingers at everybody but himself in defense of his underwhelming effort.

Mass testing

Mass testing will clearly be the fulcrum of the National Basketball Association’s safety protocols moving forward. With training camp having already begun and other ancillary activities ramping up heading into the start of the 2020-21 season in two weeks, officials and players are being trusted to follow the league’s 134-page “guide” on navigating the new competitive environment. There will be no bubble protection, however — which is to say rules designed to maintain the schedule, already under pressure off a quick turnaround and compressed to address new realities, figure to be followed in the beach.

Holdout

Honesty has always been one of Rockets head coach Stephen Silas’ trademark traits, so he was just being himself when he spoke candidly about James Harden’s status heading into the 2020-21 season. Over the weekend, he held his first workout with players since being pried from the Mavericks to take the hot seat in late October, and the eight-time All-Star was a notable absence. At the time, he cited the National Basketball Association’s stringent novel coronavirus protocols as the primary cause; his would-be top dog could most recently be found partying in Atlanta and Las Vegas in contravention of the league’s directive against breaking quarantine outside of essential activities. Yesterday, however, he was more succinct with the situation; the 2018 Most Valuable Player, he said, is “a holdout,” having missed a scheduled Sunday night workout and subsequent practice.

PlayStation 5: gone in 60 seconds

“How do I succeed? Let me count the ways.” As crude as the paraphrase to the first line of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s arguably most famous sonnet may be, it provides a succinct view of how Sony Interactive Entertainment’s regional executives must be absorbing the runup to its Philippine launch of the PlayStation 5 on Dec. 11. To know the mechanics for pre-orders in the Pearl of the Orient Sea, gamers counted exactly seven days after the latest-generation console’s Nov. 12 release everywhere else in the world. And, once informed, they counted on their luck to see them through; they realized they needed to have a lot, seeing as how everything would be done online.

Wizards’ Westbrook

For the most part, Russell Westbrook exuded candor when he met members of the media yesterday. Outside of expounding on the reasons he finds himself in new digs for the second time in one and a half years, he was generous with his thoughts. He spoke for half an hour in the Wizards’ practice facility, during which he displayed his trademark intensity and competitiveness. He said he looked forward to burning rubber with, in his words, “superstar talent” Bradley Beal. He reiterated his close relationship with Wizards head coach Scott Brooks dating back to their time with the Thunder. He spoke about setting an example for teammates while keeping long hours on the court to hone his craft.

Westbrook new home

For the third time in as many years, Russell Westbrook will have a new home. As in the previous offseason, the transfer comes at his behest. He thought he would thrive with the Rockets, only to find his small-ball partnership with top dog James Harden crash and burn at the hands of the rampaging Lakers in the second round of the playoffs. And, based on information making the grapevine, he bristled in the absence of organizational and personal accountability — made all the more evident with the departures of head coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey — enough to push for yet another change of scenery.

Schroder’s wish

Dennis Schroder could not help but be candid about his desire to start for the Lakers in a virtual presser with scribes yesterday. After having been the first substitute off the bench for the Thunder in the last two years, he felt he had been there and done that, and figured his accomplishments — including finishing second in Voting for the 2019-20 Sixth Man of the Year — warranted a promotion. He didn’t mention it, but he was, no doubt, likewise recalling his last two years with the Hawks, during which time he proved to be a productive member of the First Five.

Silly-season event

As a silly-season event, The Match: Champions for Charity could not have been more successful. First, it had as participants crossover stars, and arguably the four biggest, from two sports. Second, it had a format that lent well to remote appreciation; with the novel coronavirus pandemic still requiring quarantine protocols that prevented spectators to be on site, it provided ample opportunity for spectacular golf, not to mention friendly ribbing. And, third, it had a good cause; it wound up raising a whopping $20 million to fund COVID-19 relief efforts.

Bogdanovic misstep

It’s easy to see why the Bucks wanted to load up in the offseason. For the second straight campaign, they headed into the playoffs as the league leaders, only to find themselves falling short of expectations. Last year, they fell to the rampaging Raptors in six games despite having claimed the first two of the East Finals. And then, in early September, they were pilloried by the upstart Heat, who needed just five contests to advance to the conference finals. That they bowed to achievers was of no consequence to them. There could be no downplaying the extent of their disappointment; after all, they had reigning Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo heading their cause, and, moving forward, they needed to meet expectations.

Lakers sign Harrell

One of the biggest surprises in free agency was the decision of reigning Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell to jump to the Lakers. Not that the move made no sense. In fact, there are no downsides to claiming a crucial spot on the rotation of the defending champions — and especially when doing so makes them even more favored to retain their collective status as the best of the best. Nonetheless, the development raised eyebrows, and not just because he’s fresh off a personally productive campaign with their intra-town rivals.

Busy Lakers

Free agency in the National Basketball Association has turned competition into a year-round affair.