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Kobe Bryant, 41

Death is never easy to take, and, for obvious reasons, among the hardest to process is that of a sports figure who transcended his or her calling. It’s why the passing of Kobe Bryant yesterday came as a shock even to casual observers with little or no regard for basketball. In life, he evoked emotions few others in his profession could. And in the absence of life, he generated an outpouring of sympathy and grief. It wasn’t simply that he went too soon at 41, and under tragic circumstances -- his daughter Gianna, all of 13, by his side. It was that he went not on his own terms, and, therefore, not on terms all and sundry could accept.

Tiger motivation

Tiger Woods had exactly the start he wanted to his round yesterday. Tied for 17th halfway through the Farmers Insurance Open, he figured putting up a good round would put those ahead of him on notice, not to mention set him up for a final 18 with a legitimate shot at the hardware. And he did hit the ground running; he carded birdies on the first and third, sank a crucial chip for par on the fourth to keep the momentum going, and then capped his front nine with two more birdies to make the turn at four under on Moving Day. By the time he stood on the 10th tee, he was just two strokes off the lead.

Eli Manning

It was, in retrospect, the only choice that made any modicum of sense for Eli Manning. Even though he pledged to thoroughly examine his options after finishing the current campaign with a win last month, he couldn’t but have known even then that retirement could no longer be put off. Not with his avowed refusal to continue serving as backup to a draft pick, and not with his best days long behind him. His father certainly thought so: Archie was, if nothing else, emphatic in declaring that he would never wear colors other than those of the Giants.

396-397

Longtime fans still remember the outrage that greeted the announcement of the Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal as the National Basketball Association’s Most Valuable Player at the turn of the century. No, it wasn’t because he didn’t deserve the honor. To the contrary, it was precisely because he did; he garnered 120 out of a possible 121 votes cast by a panel of writers and broadcasters for the award. The lone dissenter? Fred Hickman, then with CNN, who went with the Sixers’ Allen Iverson. “It was crazy,” the one-time Sports Emmy winner recalled of the backlash. “I got death threats.”

Aussie Open

Day One of the Australian Open came and went with 32 matches either suspended or postponed for today, but not for reasons players feared would affect the schedule. Even as decades-worst bushfires continued to ravage parts of the country, air quality turned out to be just fine for those who managed to take to the court; instruments continually measuring particulates churned out ideal numbers for competition, in stark contrast to conditions that affected qualifying matches last week. Instead, rain proved the tournament’s nemesis, limiting contests to Melbourne Park’s three arenas with retractable roofs once it made its presence felt.

50 years wait

The Chiefs figured the Titans were going to hit the ground running, both literally and figuratively. It was a no-brainer, really. Given the way their opponents blazed the starts of set-tos against the Patriots in the wild card game and the Ravens in the divisional round, they knew the same determined effort would challenge them from the get-go yesterday. And, true enough, they were greeted by a ground attack starring Pro Bowl running back Derrick Henry, who put up 32 yards in the first two series that netted 10 points. With 5:52 still left in the first quarter, they were already down by double digits.

Part-time cager

For critics, it’s fair to categorize Kawhi Leonard as a part-time player. Thus far, he has suited up in 33 of the Clippers’ 43 matches -- which means he’s sidelined roughly once in every four outings. Save for a left knee contusion that had him decommissioned in November, the development is planned and in adherence to a strict load management program that has him sitting out of either game in back-to-back sets. And for all the second-guessing about the plan’s implications on public perception, there can be no disputing its effects to the bottom line.

MLB scandal

“Don’t cheat to cheat” is essentially how Major League Baseball wants all and sundry to view its prohibition on the use of any and all forms of technology to decode signs. Having already thrown the book at the Astros for providing batters with otherwise-privileged information through extra-legal means, the Commissioner’s Office is slated to do the same to the Red Sox once its probe ends. To be sure, its intent is clear; it wants to free the sport of suspicions on its integrity and commitment to fair play. Using circumstantial advantages -- such as when a runner is in second base and able to see the opposing catcher’s gestures -- is one thing. Tapping other parties with access to electronic equipment in order to get ahead is quite another.

Mixed emotions

Who’s to say why Tyronn Lue suddenly felt the urge to publicly convey his sentiments regarding his unceremonious departure from the Cavaliers six games into the 2018–19 season? He managed to stay silent for 15 whole months, only to open up about his firing in a story published by The Athletic yesterday. And, given his pronouncements, it was one that hurt. “I don’t think it should’ve happened,” he told senior writer Joe Vardon. “It was tough. To win the first championship ever in Cleveland history, and then make the Finals [the next two years] and then get fired six games in, it’s hard to swallow and it’s tough to deal with.”

MLB scandal

Any way fans look at it, the punishment handed the Astros for cheating was both unprecedented and shocking. Sign-stealing has been going on for as long as they can remember, as much a reflection of the state of competitiveness in Major League Baseball as of the compelling calling for protagonists to get ahead by any and all means necessary. And yet, the fact that commissioner Rob Manfred threw just about everything, including the proverbial kitchen sink, at quarters he deemed complicit in the conspiracy underscores his belief that it: 1) egregiously overstepped limits through the use of technology; and 2) went on even after he issued a memorandum threatening harsh penalties for its particular type of transgression.

Disappointment

Lamar Jackson’s uniqueness was not lost on the National Football League. In fact, it was the biggest story in the sport throughout the current campaign, what with the 32nd pick in the first round of the 2018 draft using his unparalleled skill set to lead the Ravens to a pacesetting 14-2 slate. With him under center, they were consensus Super Bowl favorites. Not for nothing did he break the record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Not for nothing did he finish the regular season with the highest number of touchdown passes. And not for nothing was he likely to claim the Most Valuable Player award.

Deft maneuvering

Rob Pelinka didn’t exactly stand on solid ground when the Lakers began their 2019–20 campaign. He had just gone through a busy offseason -- one of tumult, fresh off yet another absence from the playoffs, the resignation of his boss Magic Johnson, the assassination of his character by the living legend, and a futile courtship of reigning Finals Most Valuable Player Kawhi Leonard. Still, he remained undeterred, facing the criticisms head on and in public, and, more importantly, doing his job as best he could. And for all the shadows being cast on the purple and gold, they looked to the future with optimism. Because of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Because of him.

Exploring opportunity

Tom Brady’s presser in the aftermath of the Patriots loss to the Titans last week was laced with uncertainty. In part, his inability to answer queries on his future with any modicum of certainty stemmed from an unexpected ouster from the playoffs prior to the divisional round -- a first in a whole decade. In larger measure, it was a natural offshoot of his status as a would-be free agent at 42, and for the first time in his career. And given the deflating end to a season that began with promise and progressed with expectations of a successful Super Bowl defense, he understandably needed to process his situation before moving on.

On trading block

Kevin Love had an outstanding game yesterday. It was by far his most productive in recent memory, and the Cavaliers needed every single one of his 30 points on 15 shots (along with nine rebounds and four assists) to keep pace with the undermanned Pistons, who nonetheless managed to snatch victory from apparent defeat with resilient play. Needless to say, his elevated numbers vis-a-vis his season averages stemmed from an avowed desire to let his playing do the talking following a spate of events in which he displayed unprofessional behavior. “I wasn’t acting like a 31-year-old. I was acting like a 13-year-old,” he admitted. “That was not me.”

Rebooting Thunder

When resident All-Star Paul George scuttled offseason bliss in asking for a trade to the Clippers, Thunder general manager Sam Presti wasted no time pivoting towards a rebuild. Make no mistake; the request (more like a demand, really) was a shock to the senses, and not just because it came a mere year after the National Basketball Association’s second-leading scorer dramatically re-upped with the franchise. Nonetheless, he knew what he had to do, and proceeded to milk the prospective recipient for all that his departing asset was worth. The record haul of two starter-level players and a bevy of draft picks set him up for a future filled with hard work, but fueled by optimism.

Eyeing top four

The Clippers didn’t at all sound like title favorites in the aftermath of a demoralizing loss to the Grizzlies the other day. It wasn’t simply that they absorbed a setback against opponents with far less talent than theirs and in clear rebuild mode. It was that they did so at home, and by a whopping 26 points. Never mind that All-Star Paul George and defensive demon Patrick Beverley were sidelined due to injury. That they were on the wrong end of the final score for the second time in four matches since their Christmas Day victory against the rival Lakers, and for half of their last 10 outings, speak volumes on the state of their competitiveness -- or, to be more precise, lack thereof.

At their level best

When the Lakers host the Pistons today, they won’t simply be going for a fifth straight victory. They’ll likewise be angling to keep intact a perfect run against opponents with losing records. Since the season began, they’ve faced 18 such rivals, and they’ve emerged triumphant every single time. Not that they’ve done so with ease; against the Suns and the Pelicans last week, for instance, they needed to keep perennial All-Stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the court deep into the fourth quarter to preserve an outcome they appeared to be well in position to secure as early as in the first.

NBA visionary

Yesterday came and went with the death of former National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern dominating discussions in hoops circles. If nothing else, the universal outpouring of sympathy for his family following his untimely demise underscores the depth and breadth of the influence he wielded in 30 years as head of the most progressive professional sports league in the world. So profound was the impact he made that news of his passing overshadowed continued counteraction on The New York Times’ certainly controversial crowning of someone other than LeBron James as Player of the Decade.

More than mere spoilers

The Raptors simply met expectations in winning yesterday, but it was a welcome development all the same. Not that preying on the lowly Cavaliers in and of itself constituted progress; for all their trials, they couldn’t but have walked out of Scotiabank Arena with victory in their grasp. Still, the fact that they managed to preserve their unblemished run against opponents deemed below their talent level four-tenths into a supposedly lost season speaks volumes of their resiliency. Their roster may be absent Finals Most Valuable Player Kawhi Leonard, but it remains proud of -- and, more importantly, revels in showing -- its championship pedigree.

Lakers vs Clippers

The Lakers couldn’t have been happy with the way their match against the Clippers ended yesterday, and not just because it gave perennial irritant Patrick Beverley cause to celebrate at their expense. Even with All-Stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis starting slow, they appeared to have the set-to under control early and often courtesy of an overachieving bench. Unfortunately, they failed to sustain their momentum in the face of stellar defense and a relentless push by reigning Finals Most Valuable Player Kawhi Leonard; a lead that stood as high as 15 turned into a deficit they needed to overcome with a last-gasp trey attempt that a simple swipe converted into a turnover.

Battle of Los Angeles

Make no mistake. When the Lakers face the Clippers today, they will be complete. It isn’t simply because they’re bent on arresting the only losing streak they’ve had since the start of the 2019--20 season; precisely because of their championship aspirations, they can’t be too happy they’re mired in a three-game skein that’s as much a reflection of bad timing as of their intrinsic deficiencies. More importantly, it’s due to their desire to make a statement at the expense of their fellow Staples Center tenants. And so they will “host” the set-to with All-Stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis on tap, ailments that make them legitimate candidates for load management notwithstanding.

Lakers’ bench

If there’s anything the Lakers proved in their loss to the Bucks last week, it’s that they need more -- make that much more -- consistency from their bench if they plan to take the measure of the best of the best in the National Basketball Association. For all their vaunted depth, they have yet to show their supporting cast can step up exactly when needed. Against their fellow holders of the league’s best record, they were blitzed early, and the effort the First Five had to make in order to catch up told on them late. Tellingly, the six other players who weren’t part of the starting lineup managed to put up a mere four points in 75 combined minutes.

Giannis vs LeBron

Giannis Antetokounmpo paid fellow Most Valuable Player candidate LeBron James the ultimate compliment by describing him as “an alien” in an interview after practice the other day. “It’s crazy. Obviously, for me, that’s one of my goals: to be able to play at a high level for the next 10 years. But he’s about to turn 35 this month and he’s moving like that, playing like that, and just playing smart,” he said of the 16-year veteran, whose Lakers his Bucks will be hosting today. And he’s right; no other National Basketball Association player has been able to perform at or near a peak for as long a time as the 15-time All-Star, not coincidentally the immediate past top vote-getter.

Rules infraction

Patrick Reed didn’t do himself -- and, by extension, his Presidents Cup teammates -- any favors when he insisted that his rules infraction at the preceding Hero World Challenge was made even worse by an unfortunate “camera angle” that didn’t provide a proper perspective. It was bad enough that he swept his wedge behind his ball nestled in a bunker, not one but twice, taking out sand that would most certainly have impeded his swing prior to impact. His subsequent “acceptance” of the two-shot penalty meted on him for the no-no while, at the same time, contending that he didn’t really improve his situation in so doing was far worse.

Trust

Trust was the one element that stood out in the dramatic comeback the United States staged at the President Cup over the weekend. Down by four heading into the pivotal third day of the biennial competition, skipper Tiger Woods could very well have tapped his best player in order to stem the tide that seemed to be turning against the red, white, and blue. In fact, not a few quarters believed he should have, what with the deficit still at three points, and only after final-hole heroics in Day Two foursomes salvaged a tie out of a possible shutout. Instead, he stuck to his plan hatched with deputies Steve Stricker, Fred Couples, and Zach Johnson.

Happy ending

It was but fitting for Eli Manning to get a win in what was likely his final start in a Giants uniform. He wasn’t perfect; in fact, he threw more passes that were intercepted than caught for touchdowns. Still, he was good enough to claim the 117th regular-season victory of his career. And while it had no bearing on the franchise’s already-doomed playoff hopes, it at least served to even out his record. For the 72,894 in attendance at the MetLife Stadium, it likewise gave them an opportunity to thank him for his body of work. He was pulled with a minute and change left in the contest precisely to soak in their standing ovation.

Heat edge Mavs

The Heat weren’t looking forward to the second of a back-to-back set that had them going up against West powerhouses over the weekend. After having absorbed a hard-fought loss to the Lakers at home, the last thing they needed was an encounter versus the Mavericks on the road. Still, they were determined to show their best; true to their fight-to-the-end culture, they saw the twin tests as opportunities to prove they deserve to be mentioned alongside the acknowledged league elite. And, in this regard, the outcomes mattered to them only in the context of the work they put in en route. If they’re going to be beaten, then so be it; let it not be said, though, that they didn’t give their all.

Record bid

The Yankees were determined not to let Gerrit Cole get away again. Having already zeroed in on him as their top free-agent prospect, they promptly made sure their pitch would not be topped by the competition. They proposed a contract that guaranteed him the highest figure for the longest time. And, for good measure, they topped their eye-popping record offer of $324 million over nine years with an out clause that he can exercise at his discretion midway through the deal. In other words, they placed a key to the door under their welcome mat -- ensuring that he got the message they were bent on sending: They need him, and, to secure his future as best he can, he needs them.

Growing Hawks

The Hawks finally put the ball through the hoop with 31.1 ticks left in overtime yesterday. Prior to Cam Reddish’s short stab, they proved unable to score in 10 straight offensive sets dating back to the last minute of the fourth quarter. And through seven missed field-goal attempts, two trips to the charity stripe, and two turnovers, they managed to snatch defeat from the throes of victory. They hitherto looked to be en route to reaping the benefits of 47 minutes of outstanding hoops in hostile territory, only to get in their own way and ultimately absorb their 18th setback in 24 outings so far through their 2019--20 campaign.

Pitcher bidding

Stephen Strasburg was a lock to return to the Nationals from the moment he entered free agency. That he opted out of his contract right before they celebrated their World Series victory served only to underscore the certainty of his continued tenure with the same franchise that drafted him first overall in the 2009 draft. He was a rock for them in the regular season, coming up with a career-high 18 wins through a National League-pacing 209 innings. He was even better in the playoffs, posting Major League Baseball’s first-ever 5-0 slate en route to claiming the Most Valuable Player award.

Doncic-led Mavs

The Mavericks didn’t have any zip from the get-go yesterday. Playing on the second night of a back-to-back set against the rested Kings, they started slow and found themselves down by 20 at the break. They didn’t even get a taste of the lead at any point in the first half; the best they could do was forge two ties early on. And when they began the fourth quarter, they were still 14 points behind. Still, they plodded on, tightening the screws on defense and slowly clawing back on the strength of inspired play from veteran J.J Barea, plus the usual dose of late-game production from Most Valuable Player candidate Luka Doncic.

Starting anew

Eli Manning has had an extremely productive career. Since being chosen first overall in the 2004 draft, he has quarterbacked the Giants to 116 regular-season victories and, more importantly, to two successful Super Bowl runs in which he earned Most Valuable Player awards. He has nothing left to prove, as all and sundry will attest -- except, that is, to himself. Today, he will start for the first time since being benched in Week 3, and he aims to show that he still belongs in the National Football League. That he will be trekking to Lincoln Financial Field exactly a year to the day he last claimed a win serves as added motivation.

Overworked Tiger

Tiger Woods had an up-and-down round yesterday, but he looked none the worse for wear as he met members of the media in the aftermath. Considering all his responsibilities apart from participating at the Hero World Challenge, perhaps he understood that an even-par 72 wasn’t bad at all. It certainly could have been better; he carded a bogey and a double bogey in his last two holes after nicely getting back on track following a poor front nine. But it could have also been worse, what with his mind occupied by other off-course pursuits.

Right direction

In retrospect, Ron Rivera’s tenure stood on shaky ground as soon as hedge fund billionaire David Tepper became the new owner of the Panthers last year. For all his accomplishments, he proved inconsistent at best in nine years with the franchise. The strides he made as two-time National Football League Coach of the Year and Super Bowl 50 finalist ultimately served as fillers for a sideline run marked by mediocrity that the record $2.275-billion purchase did not support and could not continue to countenance.

Trending upward

The Sixers won yesterday for the 10th straight time since the season began, and in convincing fashion against the vaunted Jazz to boot. The victory enables them to keep pace with the Raptors, Heat, and Celtics as the only remaining National Basketball Association contenders with blemish-free slates at home. And, if nothing else, it consolidates the progress they’ve made since their unexpected stumble early last month. Five losses in seven outings, even over a long season, set alarm bells ringing, and to the point where head coach Brett Brown’s job status, hitherto solid, was called to question. To his credit, he promptly righted the ship, and they’re back to competing with conviction.

Ravens sink 49ers

The conditions at M&T Bank Stadium were far from ideal. From the vantage point of quarterback Lamar Jackson, the “horrible” weather “messed with me a lot ... A lot of passes [were] getting away from me.” He wasn’t kidding; by the end of the Ravens’ grueling meeting with the Niners, he managed to complete only 14 of 23 tries for 105 yards, paltry by his standards. He even lost the admittedly wet ball in his first series after the half, a mistake deep in enemy territory that could have proven costly given the three points that separated the protagonists at the time.

Surging Lakers

The Lakers are rolling with the National Basketball Association’s best win-loss slate, thanks to a November run in which they lost only once in 15 outings. Not coincidentally, that setback, courtesy of the surprisingly resilient Raptors, came three weeks ago, as good an indication as any that they learned -- and managed to move on -- from it, pronto. Their 17-2 record to date is a franchise best equaled or surpassed only twice before, and includes an ongoing 10-match win streak last seen when the purple and gold marched to a successful title defense in 2010. In other words, they’re playing extremely well, and certainly chasms apart from their immediate past performances.

Wrath of Celtics fans

Yesterday’s other highly anticipated return to the homecourt of a former team was scuttled due to an injury to Kyrie Irving. Not that he dreaded the prospect of facing the Celtics on the road in light of all the ill feelings that accompanied his foray into free agency; it was his seventh straight missed match since he suffered from a sore shoulder, an absence announced earlier in the week. To be sure, the development was prompted in part by the Nets’ success without him; considering that they had lost a mere set-to, he didn’t need to rush his convalescence.

Clippers clip Luka

Luka Doncic was on a roll. In fact, he had been marching confidently along uncharted territory; he put up at least 30 points and 10 assists in leading the Mavericks to victory in each of their last four games, a torrid stretch no other player in franchise history had been able to carve. And so it wasn’t without reason that he figured to do the same against the vaunted Clippers. Far more than simply being in familiar confines, he exuded the type of confidence and carried the gait that only all-world LeBron James managed to at his age.

Melo turnaround

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts continued to invest heavily in the Carmelo Anthony experiment yesterday. He tapped the future Hall of Famer to start anew, the mixed results from the latter’s previous three games notwithstanding. For all the warning signs the advanced stats from the outings -- all losses, not coincidentally -- gave, he remained upbeat on the potential of the early-season pickup to contribute to the cause. He reasoned out that talent and fit augured well for the future of the partnership, and that some time was allowed for it to blossom.

The ‘spark’

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin had seen enough. After witnessing quarterback Mason Rudolph go three and done against the winless Bengals to start the second half, he figured he needed to make a change. The starter’s latest series of futility didn’t just worsen a line that, by then, reflected an eight-of-16 effort and yet another interception. Including poor outings over the previous three games, it reflected a downward trajectory that stunted the offense and required the defense to carry the load by extension. The season was on the line, and the time had come for him to save it by inserting, in his words, “a spark.”

Tradeoffs

There were 15.2 seconds left when the Rockets made a push for the final play of the match. They had just seen their five-point lead turn into a one-point deficit following the Clippers’ third basket in the last three-quarter of a minute, but head coach Mike D’Antoni elected not to call their last timeout all the same. They were down one, but confident nonetheless; among other things, they had the league’s most potent scorer in James Harden on their side. And the ball did get to him with 10 ticks to spare. So far, so good; he was poised to add to an extremely efficient 37-point, 12-assist outing.

Spurs’ deficiencies

Heading into the Spurs’ match against the Wizards yesterday, head coach Gregg Popovich expressed confidence his charges would break out of their worst losing run in nearly nine years. They seemed to have an alarming predilection to fall behind early, thus requiring them to expend energy just to get close, only to ultimately run out of time. “If we can cut out the former, maybe we can get back on the winning track,” he told the San Antonio Express-News. He didn’t say it, but he was, no doubt, buoyed by the fact that their opponents likewise had problems to contend with while sporting the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Rusty Melo

Nobody expected Carmelo Anthony to put up huge numbers in his first National Basketball Association contest in a year. There can be no overestimating the fitness required to keep up with, let alone produce, in the fast pace of modern hoops. For all his efforts to stay in shape while unemployed, even he understands that he will need time to work himself back to adequacy in active competition. And, true enough, his debut with the Blazers yesterday left much to be desired; in 24 minutes of play en route to a blowout loss, he put up a game-worst plus-minus rating of negative 20.

Pats’ offense

Tom Brady was not a happy camper in the aftermath of the Patriots’ victory over the scrappy Eagles the other day. Even as it improved the bottom line, the manner in which it unfolded left much to be desired. “It’s just frustration with the offense; we’re trying to grind them out. I’m happy we won on the road, but at the same time, I just wish we’d score more points,” he said in a radio interview. And he’s right; as badly as they fared trying to score against the Ravens in a blowout loss at the M&T Bank Stadium last week, they proved even more hard-pressed to put up numbers at Lincoln Financial Field.