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In the face of the Lakers’ implosion and imminent elimination from the playoffs, not a few quarters have seen fit to look ahead and speculate on the changes that will inevitably be made in the offseason. The roster is due for upheaval, and not simply because it’s littered with player rentals; anybody not named LeBron James is open season for prospective trade partners with star power, the Pelicans included. Off the court, though, one departure already being touted as certain is that of head coach Luke Walton, and for reasons other than the need to feed critics a sacrificial lamb.
The Spurs oozed with extreme confidence heading into their homestand the other day, and not simply because the vaunted Warriors were missing vital cogs DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Iguodala due to injury. Having previously prevailed in 10 straight matches at the AT&T Center and in the midst of an eight-game winning run, they figured they were prepared to take the measure of the still-formidable challenge that awaited them. Success begets more success, with the adage no more evident than in the context of their consistent competitiveness through two decades under the Gregg Popovich dispensation.
Just before the Lakers faced the Rockets in their first game after the All-Star break, LeBron James announced to all and sundry that he would be on afterburners for the remainder of the season. “It’s been activated,” he said, turning to a word he had hitherto used in reference to how his intensity level seemed to ramp up in the playoffs. The difference, of course, was that he wasn’t anywhere near the postseason yet. In fact, he was in danger of missing it altogether for the first time since 2005, what with the purple and gold at 28-29 and presumably requiring him to put his nose to the proverbial grindstone in order to avert the possibility.
Considering Rory McIlroy’s recent travails with the lead and only the fourth round between him and a podium finish, it was to his advantage that he began his last day at the Players Championship out of the final pairing. After all, he had hitherto failed to win from such a position in his last nine opportunities. And, for good measure, he began yesterday’s 18 a mere stroke behind frontrunner John Rahm. In other words, he was in a good place mentally, and he just needed to trust his swing in order to live up to expectations.
There can be no denying Russell Westbrook’s importance to the Thunder’s cause. For all the claim of teammate and fellow All-Star Paul George as a legitimate candidate for National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player, he’s the engine that drives them. He’s perpetually in motion, his whirling-dervish predispositions enabling him to fill stat lines night in and night out. There’s a reason he’s averaging a triple-double once again, and it’s not because he’s good at padding numbers. Without him, the blue and yellow would be in the lottery and not battling for a favorable position in conference standings.
Considering how Tiger Woods has been inconsistent at best through his 2019 season to date, his 22-to-one odds to claim the Players Championship can arguably be described as generous. True, his game appears to be trending upward. And, true, he has prevailed in the tournament twice, never mind its staging two months earlier than its previous slot on the tour calendar. On the other hand, there can be no discounting the depth of the field and his relative standing in it given his advancing age, continued susceptibility to injury, and lack of reps. Just last week, he was forced to sit out the Arnold Palmer Invitational due to a neck strain.
Absent any information on and about the Sixers’ homestand yesterday, National Basketball Association habitues can be forgiven for making assumptions in support of the final score. That the hosts had a close call against the otherwise-stumbling Cavaliers gave rise to speculation that All-Star Joel Embiid was again sidelined, and that visiting counterpart Kevin Love, meanwhile, had a monster outing. In truth, it was the opposite, the former managed to burn rubber for 34 minutes, while the latter stuck to schedule and rested.
Yesterday, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr was on the mark when he referenced George Orwell’s seminal tome “1984” in relation to the intense scrutiny public figures have faced in recent memory. Every single move they make is analyzed. Every singe word they utter is parsed, even if in confidence and presumably away from prying eyes. And they are second-guessed instantaneously. No doubt, the inevitability of the situation was what prompted him to address with humor his off-the-cuff remark to an assistant during a timeout late in a home loss to the otherwise-hapless Suns the day before.
“I’m back,” Sixers All-Star Joel Embiid declared before the Wells Fargo Center crowd, and none too soon. His presence on the court was certainly required; the red, white, and blue played uninspiring .500 ball in the eight matches he was sidelined due to a sore left knee, their middling slate underscoring his importance to the cause. For all their supposed talent, their system revolves around him, and precisely because he’s their biggest weapon in their aim to claim favorable playoff seeding. And, true enough, he promptly dropped an imposing 33 and 12 yesterday against the Pacers, the very opponents hitherto ahead of them in conference standings.
There’s no question that LeBron James’ climb to fourth on the National Basketball Association’s career scoring list was a singular deed that deserved significant recognition. If nothing else, it spoke of the four-time Most Valuable Player’s longevity and dependability, not to mention standing among the league’s all-time greats. Yet, his attainment of the milestone during the Lakers’ homestand against the Nuggets last Friday received a muted response at best, and not just because they had a losing record that effectively served to discount it.
Considering how the Bulls have been battling of late, it’s a wonder that they were actually regular fodder for late-night comedy fare at the start of the season. Forget the positive outlook the front office tried to imbibe heading into their 2018-19 campaign; with questionable signings juxtaposing uninspired sideline direction, they were slated to once again be on the wrong side of dysfunctional. The replacement of underwhelming Fred Hoiberg with erstwhile assistant Jim Boylen as head coach did little to stem the swoon; in fact, it was exacerbated by the newly minted mentor’s military machinations.
For a while there, it looked as if the Rockets were floundering. They greeted the last week of February with a loss to the otherwise-reeling Lakers, marking their second straight setback and third in four outings. Frustration was setting in, and to the point where reigning league Most Valuable Player James Harden felt compelled to note that “we have no tendencies.” Never mind that he was still in the midst of a record scoring spree topped only by offensive force Wilt Chamberlain in pro hoops annals. As far as he was concerned, more pressing matters had to be contended with, their battle for homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs not least of all.
If there’s anything that characterizes the Warriors’ ability to keep redefining greatness in a day and age of intense competition, it’s their commitment to continuous improvement. Their refusal to accept the status quo has effectively allowed them to be moving targets. They’ve kept even the most prepared opposition at bay with their unique blend of front office vision and support, progressive coaching style and substance, and absolute roster buy-in that preserves a clearly defined pecking order. It’s why they’ve retained their position as the National Basketball Association’s gold standard, and why they’ve weathered storms from outside and within.
When the Clippers dealt leading scorer Tobias Harris to the Sixers for, among others, a trove of draft picks and future salary cap flexibility on the eve of the trade deadline, not a few quarters believed them to be on rebuild mode for the remainder of the season. It wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion to draw given the way they hitherto competed; for all their supposed lack of talent in the absence of a marquee name, they led the West standings at one point. There was likewise the matter of their first-round pick in this year’s draft, which they wouldn’t need to convey to the Celtics if they miss the playoffs.
LeBron James didn’t even bother to wait for the game to finish. With around 15 ticks left in the contest, he left the court and headed straight to the locker room. Clearly, he was in no mood to exchange pleasantries with the visiting victors, and he made sure to tell all and sundry why in his post-mortem. “We blew it,” he said. And he was right. For the better part of 46 minutes, the Lakers proved the equal of the league-leading Bucks. For the better part of 46 minutes, he proved superior to Giannis Antetokounmpo, the preemptive Most Valuable Player. Unfortunately, they imploded in the last two, and in such a way as to make the worst of the worst blush in embarrassment.
To argue that Carmelo Anthony has had a controversial 2018-19 campaign would be to understate the obvious. Following a season with the Thunder in which he wound up an ill fit as a third option, he found himself traded to and bought out by the Hawks (in the process literally earning an unused jersey), and then signing, to much fanfare, with the Rockets. Unfortunately, his welcome lasted all of three weeks; he was decommissioned after 10 games, and then traded to the Bulls, who also saw fit to promptly cut their ties with him. All the criticisms about his outdated style of play aside, he deserves a better finish to his Hall of Fame career.
The Celtics didn’t sound too alarmed when they lost on the road to the lowly Bulls over the weekend. Forget that their opponents were third to last in the so-called Leastern Conference. Or that they had hitherto waxed the very same hosts by a record score. Or that it was their second straight setback coming off All-Star weekend. As far as they were concerned, it was an off-night that could easily be explained away. “You’re going to have clunkers in the (National Basketball Association),” head coach Brad Stevens argued. Meanwhile, top dog Kyrie Irving exhibited supreme confidence in declaring that the seemingly lethargic play wouldn’t be carrying over to the playoffs. “Because I’m here,” he noted.
James Harden’s remarkable streak of 30-point games came to an end yesterday, but he couldn’t have cared less. It didn’t matter that he was just a bucket short of extending the run to 33 games, second in National Basketball Association history to the 65 put up by offensive anomaly Wilt Chamberlain in another era. As far as he was concerned, the fact that the Rockets won was most important. A setback in familiar confines against the supposedly hapless Hawks would have put a crimp on their plan to claim homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
For Knicks fans, the 2018-19 campaign has been a lost cause. Not that they aren’t used to swoons. Since the turn of the millennium, they have seen the blue and orange make the playoffs just four times, and not in the last half decade. That said, they harbored more hope than usual heading into the season, with the hiring of head coach David Fizdale underscoring the dispensation’s patient outlook and support for a youth movement. And then came all the dubious records being set, with downturn after downturn casting shadows of doubt over even the most optimistic of quarters. For perennial naysayers, the unexpected trade of erstwhile franchise cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis was proof that things were the same old, same old.
Even before tip-off yesterday, head coach Alvin Gentry received pushback from members of the media for the Pelicans’ decision to sit All-Star Anthony Davis in their homestand against the Lakers. The questions had to be asked, of course; given the future Hall of Famer’s thinly veiled bid to exchange his navy blues for purples prior to the trade deadline, there was the not indelicate matter of his motivations coming to the fore during the set-to, and of the perception that his employers were better served not to deal with it altogether.
THE battle for eighth seed in the Western Conference looks to be going down the wire, never mind that those angling for it will subsequently face the prospect of a one-and-done appearance in the playoffs. On paper, it’s a three-way race between the Kings, Lakers, and Clippers, but the latter’s trade-deadline move sending erstwhile top scorer Tobias Harris packing for a couple of first-round picks telegraphs their preference to head to the lottery instead. They’re building for the future, which means they would rather miss the postseason and thereby keep a draft choice that would otherwise be going to the Celtics based on terms of a previous deal.
The Lakers will begin the second half of their 2018-19 campaign outside the playoff bubble, not quite a departure from preseason projections. Yet, not a few quarters have seen fit to view them as a disappointment, and not simply because they have LeBron James -- he with the personal streak of eight straight Finals appearances -- on their side. Even as taking an early vacation has been the norm for them since 2013, not a few quarters still believe they should be better (okay, much better) than their sub-.500 record suggests.
Naomi Osaka was at a crossroads by the end of 2017. In the year that passed since being named the Women’s Tennis Association Newcomer of the Year, she had seen her world ranking drop 20 spots to 68th, as clear a reflection as any of her up-and-down play. Needless to say, her partnership with Japan Tennis Association-endorsed David Taylor did not bring about the progress she envisioned, and she figured another mentoring change was in order. And, in keeping with the out-of-the-box thinking of an out-of-the-box character in an out-of-the-box situation, she chose one with absolutely no experience in the sidelines.
Fatigue was evident in Tiger Woods’ gait as he walked off the 18th green of the Riviera Country Club for the last time yesterday. He had played 28 holes through fickle Los Angeles weather that saw the sun out early, the wind blowing late, and the rains making an appearance in between, and he was bushed. It told on his game as well; after posting a third-round 65 and going three under par after seven holes of the fourth, he limped to a four-over line for his final 11 holes. What looked like a remarkable Top Five showing for the Genesis Open host turned into a 15th-place finish.
Anthony Davis had a busy Saturday. While in Charlotte for the All-Star festivities, he still didn’t know if he would be well enough to participate in the main game. Off the court, though, he proved to be among the most active of the National Basketball Association’s leading lights. He was open to answering any and all queries during, and well after, media availability -- on the podium and in front of cameras. And he didn’t just spew well-rehearsed sound bites; he made startling revelations that underscored the candor with which he chose to approach his time in the hot seat.
To argue that Anthony Davis wasn’t himself the other day would be to grossly understate the obvious. After all, he managed just three points off one basket and one free throw in playing half the game, his eight misses from the field coming just one short of his combined aggregate in rebounds and blocks. The offensive output was his worst ever in any match he was able to burn rubber for at least 21 minutes, and he wasn’t happy. In his post-mortem, he professed that he missed “a lot of easy shots, layups and stuff that I normally make,” adding to his frustration.
“I guess it just kind of snowballs on you,” reserve Gordon Hayward said in the aftermath of the Celtics’ loss to the Clippers over the weekend. “It’s the NBA, man. It’s how it works.” He was, of course, referring to the way the match swung all the way to the opposite end after they appeared to have it in hand against competition that just traded away five key players. They led by 28 at one point in the first half and started the third quarter 21 up, but ultimately could not survive the sidelining of top scorer and playmaker Kyrie Irving.
When Paul George opted to stay with the Thunder in the offseason, not a few quarters found cause to shake their heads. It wasn’t simply because he backed out of a plan to move to the hometown Lakers at the earliest possible opportunity. More importantly, it was because his decision meant he would continue his far-from-perfect partnership with far-from-perfect Russell Westbrook. He had just come off a campaign in which the Thunder failed to advance past the first round, with the Jazz, headlined by a rookie, showing in no uncertain terms their propensity to underwhelm when the going got tough.
Not a few quarters took the Sixers to task shortly after the trade deadline, arguing that they overpaid just to pry erstwhile journeyman turned vital cog Tobias Harris from the Clippers. And, given the tenor of other deals for similarly valued assets, the criticism had basis. After all, such notables as Marc Gasol, Harrison Barnes, Otto Porter JR., and Nikola Mirotic changed jerseys without a single first-round pick involved in the process. On the flipside, though, no one in the City of Brotherly Love seems to think the two that general manager Elton Brand gave up could have been put to better use.
“No matter where you get picked, it’s good to be an All-Star,” Kevin Durant noted as the media peppered him with queries regarding the draft process for the National Basketball Association’s annual spectacle. He was in a much better mood than that of the other day, when he pushed back at scribes for continually ruminating on his future even with free agency still five months out. Perhaps the relative ease with which the Warriors just won over the host Suns helped, as did the talk he had with head coach Steve Kerr. In any case, it looked to be a fitting start to a good weekend.
In the face of the Pelicans’ apparent stonewalling of the Lakers heading into today’s trade deadline, not a few quarters have wondered what the best course of action for them truly is. Conventional wisdom has them benefiting the most via the adoption of a wait-and-see stance; for all the talented pieces the extremely active purple and gold have compiled in the offer on the table, it pales in comparison to that which the Celtics could conceivably -- and, based on pronouncements behind closed doors, would likely -- present in the offseason.
Given the justifiably aggressive stance the Lakers have taken in trying to pry All-Star Anthony Davis away from the Pelicans, it’s fair to wonder how all the chatter affects those who wear the purple and gold. The players have been asked numerous times, to be sure, and, outwardly, they’re giving all the right answers. It’s part of the business, they note, and, at the end of the day, they will continue to have gainful employment. A few even go so far as to seemingly welcome inclusion in trade talks, arguing it to be a reflection of value.
Considering how developments have unfolded in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, it has become eminently clear that he’s determined to move to the Lakers, and fast. Yesterday, news of his transmittal of the short list of four teams he’s willing to play for exploded in hoops circles, seemingly an indication of his expansion of options. In truth, however, it was a crafty chess move designed to make the Pelicans green-light his departure for the purple and gold before the trade deadline. After all, amenability is one thing, and desire is quite another.
Tom Brady looked mortal for most of Super Bowl LIII. In fact, he was decidedly ordinary; up until late in the fourth quarter, the most accomplished quarterback in National Football League history could not overcome a well-prepared Rams defense designed to thwart the same air attack that enabled the Patriots to put up record numbers en route to yesterday’s affair. And then something happened: He happened. As with his other appearances in the Big Game, he delivered when his best was most needed and ultimately finished with yet another victory.
If there’s anything the Lakers showed in their marquee matchup against the Warriors yesterday, it’s that they possess the potential to both contend and confound. Heading into the set-to, they knew top dog LeBron James wasn’t suiting up, and yet they remained confident of their chances. After all, they emerged victorious against the defending champions on Christmas Day even though the 16-time All-Star had to leave in the middle of the third quarter due to a groin strain. They were an uneven but optimistic bunch, cognizant of their propensity to make mistakes but steadfast in their belief that their talents would ultimately see them through.
In the wake of biggest star Anthony Davis’ public -- and, therefore, violative -- request to be traded to a contender, the Pelicans have hung tough. Outwardly, they’re bent on going through business as usual, never mind that the decision of their franchise player to move on compels them to do so as well, albeit against their wishes. Nonetheless, it bears noting that they’re determined to get past the development on their own terms. Despite the peculiar timing of the pronouncement, they’ll be proceeding at a pace that best serves their interests.
The Pelicans could have simply folded yesterday. They certainly had a variety of excuses to do so. They were down by double digits early on the road against the highly regarded Rockets, with a match at home against the equally formidable Nuggets awaiting them on a back-to-back stint. More importantly, they had just come off three days between stops in which the only news they got was the worst possible one: Perennial Most Valuable Player candidate Anthony Davis wants out, and has asked management to explode trade possibilities with a contender. Considering that they were already third to last in the West with him at his finest, the outlook could very easily have demoralized them.
It’s finally out in the open. The worst-kept secret in the National Basketball Association was brought to the fore yesterday, with agent Rich Paul formally notifying the Pelicans of All-Star Anthony Davis’ desire to be traded to a contender. Tellingly, he saw fit to personally inform his teammates of the development, as much in keeping with the same spirit of transparency as in acknowledging that he felt their collective efforts weren’t enough to net them a second straight playoff stint.
There are a great many ways to describe Novak Djokovic’s ascent to the top of the Australian Open, but dominant is, perhaps, the most apt. After a fortnight in which he rampaged through his supposed peers to take a record seventh Norman Brooks Challenge Cup, he wound up fortifying his stranglehold on the sport. And so utterly transcendent was he that fellow finalist Rafael Nadal, the only entrant in the draw who could boast of a better run-up to the championship round, looked pedestrian by comparison.
No, the swoon in the retail price of NBA 2K19 on all platforms isn’t because it has stopped being representative of the actual product. Seasonal offerings invariably receive markdowns over time, what with their actual value dwindling closer to the end of a given season and the beginning of a new one. That said, the year-on-year progression of the National Basketball Association has certainly had an effect on perception. These days, scoring is way up and stat lines will more often than not reflect hitherto unreachable numbers.
For the Lakers, first the good news: LeBron James was present in practice the other day. Even though he was not able to engage in full-contact scrimmages, his participation in drills signifies a major step forward in his rehabilitation from a left groin strain he suffered on Christmas Day. That the Lakers need him, stat, cannot be overstated; in the four weeks since he was sidelined due to the injury, they have gone a poor five and nine. Their post-Holiday slate has had them crater from fourth to ninth in conference standings.
It’s easy to see why the Mavericks quickly moved to patch what appeared to be a broken relationship with point guard Dennis Smith Jr. After all, they used their lottery position last year to choose him ninth overall in the draft, and it would have been foolhardy of them to then give up on him after just a season and a half. For all his pouting, the potential he showed in earning All-Rookie Second Team honors remained, and they felt confident his pairing with superstar-in-the-making Luka Doncic would eventually succeed.
It was most certainly a reflection of the uncertain state of Serena Williams’ game that pundits could not agree on their Australian Open predictions. Over the last one and a half decades, their default projection had been to place her first among equals, especially in Grand Slam tournaments. Heading into the first major championship of the year, however, wariness replaced confidence, with not a few quarters finding cause, chutzpah, even, to rate, among others, 20-year-old Aryna Sabalenka (fresh off a sterling finish to 2018 and a victory at the Shenzhen Open) ahead of her.
Manny Pacquiao had no business being in the boxing ring the other day. It wasn’t because he no longer had the speed, the skill, or the stamina to rank among the best in the welterweight class; his advancing age notwithstanding, he proved in his bout against decidedly overmatched Adrian Broner that he deserved to retain his secondary title. Rather, it was because he had a day job, and it should have required him to be some 12,000 kilometers from the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
The Lakers were pumped. Heading into the Toyota Center, they figured they could generate the momentum they needed to prove, at the very least to themselves, that they could win under pressure with consistency even absent top dog LeBron James. That was certainly what they did against the highly regarded Thunder last Friday, hanging tough in overtime after looking lost and ripe for the picking early on. And for a while there, it looked as if they possessed the resolve to do so anew against the Rockets on the road.