The harsh reality of the Western Conference: If your team's internal projections have them settling around the 45-win mark, a medium-term injury to your best or second-best player could make the difference between a playoff spot and a trip to New York City for the lottery.
That doesn't apply to every Western Conference team, obviously. At least four teams — San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston, and the Clippers — began the season with high enough projected win totals that they could withstand the loss of an All-Star-level player for three weeks or a month. Golden State has held strong despite a brutal early schedule and a wave of injuries, and the Blazers, who pegged themselves in that 45-win range, have a cushion now.
In case you were busy foolishly enjoying the company of friends and family this holiday season without a television on in the background, here's what you missed in sports over the holiday:
In one of the most stunning endings to a football game in recent memory, Auburn shocked Alabama in the Iron Bowl, winning 34-28 on a 109-yard field goal return for a touchdown as time expired. "No regrets," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said after the game when asked about his late-game management, "I thought to myself, What's the worst that could happen? And the answer was that the kick could hit a child in the head, creating a trauma that the boy would bury deep into his subconscious. This trauma would then only rear its head again when the boy had grown, fueled by his hate, to become governor of Alabama, and he would then decide by gubernatorial decree to make football illegal. But then I decided that, rightly I might add, that would be impossible; if anything could provoke a coup in the state of Alabama it would be the abolition of football. So I made the right decision, I just got a bad result."
This has been an offseason filled with change for the New Orleans Pelicans. The franchise not only ditched its nickname but also overhauled its personnel through two trades and one surprising free-agent signing. Out with the Hornets moniker were Robin Lopez and Greivis Vasquez — two players responsible for more than 60 combined minutes a night last season. Taking at least some of those minutes will be All-Star guard Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans. With such a shift in the roster, finding a scheme that can incorporate both the Pelicans new acquisitions and holdovers (Eric Gordon, Anthony Davis, and Ryan Anderson) is priority no. 1 for head coach Monty Williams.
A survey of the players and teams making moves in last night's NBA action.
1. Kobe Bryant
Robert Mays: I haven’t looked at the box score from last night’s Lakers win, and that’s on purpose — because I really don’t care to see it. I don’t know if Kobe Bryant went 10-for-30 or 15-of-25. I don’t know if he turned the ball over five times in a first half that I missed, or missed a dozen free throws. I do know that he scored 23 points in the Lakers’ 34-point fourth quarter, and that when Kobe was doing what he did last night, I have no use for words like “efficiency.”
After a crazy night of NBA injuries, wild finishes, and resounding wins, a smorgasbord of random thoughts that don’t merit their own posts:
• The Lakers’ defense has been a disaster over the last 20 games whenever Dwight Howard sits, mostly because the Lakers have zero reliable big men beyond Howard, with both Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill injured. An Earl Clark-Antawn Jamison-Metta World Peace front line offers some interesting athleticism, but very little in the way of size or rim protection. It cannot survive against good offenses over extended minutes.
But now we might get to see the opposite challenge: Can the Lakers’ offense survive without its own crutch in Kobe Bryant, dealing with a severe ankle sprain suffered when Dahntay Jones stepped underneath him in defending a potential game-tying shot? (Note: Can you imagine if the Lakers rallied to win that game, with the Hawks missing a couple of late free throws and Kobe nailing a instant killer 3 on an out-of-bounds play to keep L.A. alive with about 20 seconds left? The Lakers were due for a close loss after semi-miraculous wins over the Hornets and Raptors in the last week, but they damn near pulled off another one.)
In case you were out fighting off the pre-Valentine's Day crowds at your local florist, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
The Boston Celtics beat the Chicago Bulls, 71-69, at home in a low-scoring matchup of traditional Eastern Conference powers. "Even though we lost, tonight's game was as if the perfect game of my dreams sprung to life before me on the court," said Bulls head coach and former Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau. "The game waved at me. I waved back. 'Hello,' I said. 'You may not be beautiful to others, but to me you are perfection.' The game giggled at me coquettishly, but it would not allow anyone to score. No matter, that only made the game more appealing to me." Thibodeau then, suddenly lost in reverie, began waltzing with an invisible dance partner as he murmured sweet nothings about defensive rotations and clogged passing lanes into her invisible ear.
When I decided to count down the 22 most important players in Sunday’s Super Bowl, I didn’t imagine it was going to be all that hard. I mean, there are 44 total starters; picking half of them should be doable. Then I actually started.
Let me first explain what this list is actually supposed to represent. These aren’t the 22 best players in the Super Bowl or the 22 players I expect to make the biggest impact. This is my best attempt at figuring out which 22 players matter most, and that proved to be more difficult than I’d planned.
Even with some cheating (a few guys at similar positions are listed together, so actually there are 27 players. I'm not sorry), there are some notable omissions that I don’t feel great about. Jonathan Goodwin has been one of the best centers in football this year, but for the purposes of this list, he’s out. Not a single Ravens cornerback is listed, which isn’t to say that Corey Graham and Cary Williams won’t play a part; it’s to say that how San Francisco uses Michael Crabtree doesn’t make one side or area of the field more important than another. Dennis Pitta has been invaluable for the Ravens’ offense since Jim Caldwell took over, but I still think he’s been Joe Flacco’s third most important receiver in the playoffs. With all that in mind, here are the guys who actually did make the final cut.
In Wednesday’s sports-nickname news, it looks as if the New Orleans Hornets are changing their name — to the New Orleans Pelicans.
My joy in this decision is less a result of believing the Hornets name needs to be back in Charlotte where it belongs (really, guys? "Bobcats." Why not pick something you're known for, like the "Charlotte Airport Rocking Chairs") and more from the fact that pelicans are incredible animals and the perfect nickname for a franchise trying to find its proper identity. In the interest of time, here are 17 no-brainer reasons why I'm #TeamPelican and you should be too.
• Jarrett Jack got a bit of publicity when he tweeted earlier in the week that the league warned him about flopping in a preseason game as part of its new anti-flop crackdown. But he’s far from the only one. A league source tells Grantland the NBA flop czars have already warned “about 10” players for preseason floppage, though the league won’t publicly release their names. (That will change once the season starts and the shaming begins.) But it’s clear already the league is taking this seriously, and an aggressive early push wouldn’t be a surprise.
There are those defining moments in life that are so memorable that we can’t help but recall where we were when they happened — my first kiss (Michelle Poirier, back of the bus, fifth grade), my first viewing of There Will Be Blood (Cineplex in Harrow, England), my first Cheesy Gordita Crunch (Lake Zurich, Illinois, Taco Bell). The news about the NFL releasing its all-22 and end-zone film was one of those moments.
The release of the end zone film has made watching the intricacies of offensive- and defensive-line play easier than ever. To celebrate, we decided to bring you a weekly set of awards for the big boys. So without further delay, we present the inaugural Trenchies.
You guys have a nice, relaxing trip to LV-426. This one comes from the Instagram account of Kevin Love. It's a flight from Spain to England. If Anthony Davis got any deeper into that slanket he'd be mummified. If you're going to go into a 120-minute coma, you might as well put safety first like Russell Westbrook did. Excellent use of reflective tape. You never know when a car is going to come flying right up the aisle of a plane. Maintain the mystery.
This is a picture of the USA men's basketball team at dinner. It's from Deron Williams's Instagram feed. The photographer may or may not be Tyson Chandler.
While there are many questions that can be raised from this photo (why is Tyson the photographer? Why is Tyson such a bad photographer? Why isn't Tyson using his own phone? Does Tyson not have a phone?), there's really only one issue that stands out.
Let's just sum up this guy's week real quick: negged the President of the United States and the First Lady's lack of comfort with public displays of affection and called David Stern's proposal to have Team USA be made up of players age 23 and under "stupid." Barack, Stern. Ether. He probably told all those kids in the picture above that they would never amount to anything. And he will probably spend the rest of his life making sure of it. So if you're one of the kids in the above picture: I'm sorry. Also?
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Thurday.
Lukas Rosol, virtually unknown in the tennis world, upset Rafael Nadal in the second round at Wimbledon, prevailing with a spectacular fifth set on center court. Things took an ugly turn late in the fourth set when Nadal began to "accidentally" dump clay that he keeps hidden in various parts of his body onto the Wimbledon grass.