Tuesday, January 31, 2017

J-Speaks: Super Bowl LI Preview

This Sunday at NRG Stadium in Houston, TX, Super Bowl LI will take place between the American Football Conference Champion (AFC) New England Patriots versus the National Football Conference Champion (NFC) Atlanta Falcons. This will also be a matchup of two teams trying to make history. The Patriots are looking to add to their incredible resume, while the Falcons are trying to build one of their own. This is also matchup between two quarterbacks with one hoping to add to his future Hall of Fame resume and the other is looking to prove he belongs in the pantheon of the elite signal callers in the National Football League (NFL) today. For both squads, reaching Super Bowl LI and being on the door step to the Vince Lombard Trophy has not been an easy journey.
In the case of the AFC East champion New England Patriots (16-2-including the 2016 playoffs), their journey began without their all-world quarterback MVP candidate and future First-Ballot Hall of Famer Tom Brady, who served a four-game suspension for “deflate gate” back in the 2015 AFC title game versus the Indianapolis Colts.
The Patriots as they have done in the Brady/ head coach Bill Belichick era did not panic. They turned the keys to the offense over to backup Jimmy Garoppolo under center the first two games of the season, winning at the Arizona Cardinals (7-8-1) 23-21 on Sept. 11, 2016 and versus the Miami Dolphins (10-7) 31-24 one week later.
Third string rookie Jacoby Brissett came in late in the second game of the season for an injured Garoppolo, while also starting the next two games. In his first start in Week 3 on Sept. 22, 2016, he helped the Patriots take down the eventual AFC South champion Houston Texans (10-8) 27-0. The Pats unfortunately lost the next week versus division rival the Buffalo Bills (7-9) 16-0, which brought their record to 3-1.
Brady returned the next week for the Pats Week 5 Oct. 9, 2016 matchup at the Cleveland Browns (1-15) and they took down their opponent in their own stadium 33-13 and they never looked back.
The Patriots, who won their eighth straight AFC East crown, going 11-1 the remainder of the season, which included a seven-game winning streak to close the 2016 campaign.
The only loss during that stretch was a 31-24 setback versus the NFC West champion Seattle Seahawks (11-6-1) in Week 10 on Sunday night Nov. 13, 2016 on NBC.
Brady came back from his suspension to have perhaps the best touchdown to interceptions ratios in NFL history with 28 passing TDs for the third time in his career and just two interceptions. His 67.4 completion percentage was the second-best season of his career and the 8.2 yards per pass completion was the third-highest of his career as well. His 14.0 touchdown-interception ratio was the best in the 97-year history of the NFL.
What makes what Brady did so remarkable is that this all occurred with the Patriots’ best pass catcher in tight end Rob Gronkowski, whose season concluded after eight games  because of an injured back that required surgery.
With him gone, the rest of the Patriots receiving core stepped up and things kept moving on as always. Wide receiver Julian Edelman had 98 receptions, the second most in his seven-year career for a career-high of 1,106 yards in the regular season. Tight End Martellus Bennett had a solid season for the Pats with 55 receptions for 701 yards and seven touchdowns.
New addition Chris Hogan also played well for the Pats in his first season after spending his first three with the rival Bills with career-highs of 57 catches for 680 yards and tied a career-best with four scores and he would play prominently in the team’s postseason run. More on that later.
Another contributor to the Patriots’ passing attack was running back James White, who finished second on the team in receptions with 60 catches for 551 yards and five touchdowns.
Even Rookie wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell was effective with 32 catches for 401 yards and six touchdowns.
The Patriots offense in the regular season was also powered by running back LeGarrette Blount, who had a career-high of 1,161 rushing yards and rushed for a career-high and franchise record 18 touchdowns.

"We have a saying around here, 'A physically tough team is a team that can run the football. Stop the run and cover kicks,'" Edelman said. "In order to be a smart, tough football team, I would say that we have to definitely have a good run game."
Add it all up, you had an offense that was ranked third in the league in points per game at 27.6; seventh in rushing yards per contest at 117.0; fourth in passing yards per game at 269.3 and finished third in total points at 441. The Patriots finished in the Top 5 in points scored for the seventh consecutive regular season.

On top of that, seven different Patriots scored multiple touchdowns in a game this season, tied for the most in the NFL.  
That solid offense was complimented by an even great defense, which led the NFL in points allowed at 15.6, the first time leading in that category since 2003, when they won Super Bowl XXXVI 20-17 against the St. Louis Rams. 

To put that number into context, only the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, who won the Super Bowl that season allowed fewer points at 14.4 in the last six seasons.
The Pats defense, which was orchestrated by Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia also finished tied for third in rushing yards per game allowed at 88.6 and eighth in total yards allowed at 326.4.
That defense would play a key role in the Patriots’ 34-16 win in their Divisional Playoff contest versus the Texans on Jan. 14.
The Patriots held the Texans to just eight first downs; 285 total yards, with just 180 threw the air. They held the Texans to just threw third down conversions in 16 chances and just one touchdown in three red zone opportunities. They sacked Texans’ signal caller Brock Osweiler three times and intercepted him three times.
The Patriots defense made up for the team’s offense that was ineffective on third down themselves going just 5 for 14. While Brady had 287 yards passing and two touchdown throws, he was just 18 for 38 with two interceptions and was sacked twice.
To put Brady’s night into context, the 47.4 completion percentage he had on the evening was the lowest of his postseason career.  
Things were completely different in the AFC Championship Game eight days later, which was the Patriots sixth consecutive appearance in succession, an NFL record and their 13th overall, ranked second only to their opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers 16th.
In the team’s 36-17 win over the AFC North Champion Steelers (13-6-including playoffs), which was their fourth all-time in five tries in the postseason and their second all-time in the title game. The win earned the Pats their seventh trip to Super Sunday in the Brady/Belichick era and an NFL record ninth trip overall.
Brady, despite being sacked twice was 32 for 42 for 384 yards and three touchdowns. He helped the Pats earn their 17th win in 20 tries at home in the postseason with him under center and Belichick on the sideline.
“This team showed a lot of mental toughness over the course of the year. It was a great win tonight. I’m just happy for our team,” Brady, who set a career and Patriots franchise record with his passing yard and touchdown performance said to CBS Sports sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson after the win.
It was not only Brady’s seventh career win in the AFC title game, it was his third against the Steelers. He improved his record, regular and postseason combined against them to 6-0 at home and has thrown 19 touchdowns and no interceptions.
This was also his third career 300-plus yard passing game in the AFC Championship Game, which tied him with future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning for the most all-time.
He also tied Hall of Famer Joe Montana with his ninth career postseason game with three-plus touchdown throws, the most in NFL history.
Hogan had 180 of those passing yards and two of Brady’s scoring throws. Edelman also had a solid game with eight catches for 118 yards and a touchdown.

This was Edelman's fourth game in the postseason in his last five opportunities with 100-plus receiving yards. 
The Patriots were 11 for 17 on third down; went 3 for 5 in the red zone and gained 431 yards of total offense and had no turnovers.
Defensively they held the Steelers “Killer B” trio in check for most of the game. Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was 31 for 47 for 314 yards and one touchdown and an interception. Running back Le’Veon Bell, who set an NFL record with 337 yards rushing combined in the first two playoff games of his career as well as set Steelers’ franchise records was held to just 20 yards rushing and sustained an injury to his groin that shelved him for the remainder of the game. Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown was had seven catches for just 77 yards and no touchdowns.
The Steelers had just 54 yards rushing and converted just one red zone trip in three chances.
“Players played hard. Played smart. We took care of the ball. Played good defense. Holding this team to nine points for 50 minutes is pretty good,” Belichick said to CBS’s Jim Nantz during the presentation of the Lamar Hunt Trophy after AFC Championship Game victory.
It was also the 207th combined regular and postseason win in the Brady/Belichick in New England, which is the most for an active quarterback and head coach duo. Second on that list is Steelers’ head man Mike Tomlin and Roethlisberger with 102.
This was also the 24th playoff win for Belichick, the most in NFL history. Right behind him is Hall of Famer Tom Landry, who had all 20 of his postseason victories as the head man on the sidelines for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970s.
Standing in the way of the Patriots making history on Sunday are the NFC South Champion and No. 2 Seeded Atlanta Falcons (13-5-including 2016 playoffs).
Last season under first-year head coach Dan Quinn, the Falcons began 5-0, but won just three games in their last 11 chances to finish 8-8 and they missed the playoffs.
Two straight losses this regular season dropped their record to 4-3 and it seemed like another lost season.
The team however flipped the script and won seven of their last nine games to win their sixth division crown in franchise history and clinched a first-round bye.
The Falcons turnaround this season has a lot to do with the quarterback Matt Ryan (69.9 Comp. pct., 4,944 yards passing-2nd NFL, 38 TDs-2nd NFL, 7 INTs), who really grasped offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
Ryan’s favorite target in wide receiver Julio Jones had a monster season with 1,409 yards on 83 receptions and six touchdowns. He also led the NFL in receiving yards per game at 100.6 and his 96.3 receiving yards per game are the most in NFL history
The difference from season’s past is that the Falcons had complimentary pass catchers surrounding Jones in the likes of new editions Mohamed Sanu (59 receptions, 653 yards, 4 TDs) and Taylor Gabriel (35 receptions, 579 yards, 6 TDs).
The other big difference with this offense is the fact that they have versatile and efficient running backs in Devonta Freeman (227 rushes, 1,079 yards, 11 TDs) and Tevin Coleman (118 rushes, 520 yards, 8 TDs). Both were just as lethal in the passing with Freeman catching 54 balls in the regular season for 462 yards and two touchdowns and Coleman caught 31 passes for 421 yards and three scores.
To put the explosiveness of the Falcons’ balanced offense this season, they led the NFL in offensive plays of 20-plus yards with 84. They led the league in points per game for the first time in franchise history at 33.8; fifth in rushing yards per contest at 120.5 and yards per rush at 4.6 and tied for third in rushing scores with 20.
The Falcons passing attack finished third in yards per game at 295.3 and first in passing yards per attempt at 9.2.
What allowed Ryan and the Falcons to have such an effective offense whether it was on the ground or through the air was an offensive line that was anchored by veteran center Alex Mack; offensive tackles Jake Matthews, Ryan Schraeder; guards Andy Levitre, Chris Chester and tight ends Austin Hooper, Levine Toilolo and Jacob Tamme, who also had a combine eight touchdowns in the regular season.

"Everybody's going to have to do a great job at their responsibility," Belichick said this week. "No one guy can stop the Falcons.
Even with a great regular season, the question that many had about the Falcons is what could they do in the postseason, especially Ryan, who entered the playoffs with just a 1-4 record.
Ryan and the Falcons answered all those questions emphatically in the Divisional Round versus the Seahawks on Jan. 14 with a 36-20 win thanks to a 19-3 second quarter.
In his first postseason action since 2012, Ryan was 26 for 37 for 338 passing yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
While Coleman and Freeman were held in check with just 57 and 45 rushing yards respectably, the Falcons were very effective through the air with Freeman having four catches for 80 yards. Gabriel had four catches for 71 yards. Jones had 67 yards on six grabs and a touchdown catch, and Sanu had four catches for 44 yards and a touchdown of his own. Coleman also had a touchdown catch.
The defense, which had its ups and downs throughout the season really rose to the occasion against the Seahawks.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was 17 for 30 for 225 yards and two touchdowns, but was sacked by the Falcons defense three times and threw two interceptions. Seattle only converted one of their three red zone trips and after scoring a touchdown on their opening drive, had just two Steven Hauschka field goals over in the second and third quarters and their only one other touchdown came in the fourth quarter.
The competition got tougher in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 22 versus the NFC North Champion Green Bay Packers (12-7-including playoffs),but the Falcons rose to the moment once again, taking them down 44-21 to advance to their second Super Bowl in franchise history. 
Ryan, who helped improve the Falcons record to 2-2 in the NFC Championship Game went 27 for 38 for 392 yards, four touchdowns, no sacks and no interceptions. Ryan’s 392 passing yards are the second most ever in an NFC/NFL championship game.
“It’s exciting,” Ryan, who helped the Falcons close out the Georgia Dome in style, the team’s home since 1992 said to Evan Washburn of CBS Sports after the game. “We played well all year. We played as well as we could today. I’m happy for our guys. We’ll enjoy this, but we got some work to do and hopefully we can bring the city a championship in two weeks.”
Jones, who was questionable all week to play because of an injured toe was incredible with nine catches for 180 yards and two scores. One of the scores came on a spectacular 73-yard run in the third quarter that gave the Falcons a 31-0 lead.
“Throughout the week, we put that work in. These guys came out here. They battled for me. I didn’t practice that much throughout the week, but today I came out here and gave it all I had,” Jones, whose 180 receiving yards are the third most in NFC/NFL Championship Game history said to Bradshaw after the win during the NFC Championship Trophy presentation.
In the Packers eight-game winning streak dating back to the regular season, Rodgers was smoking hot with 21 touchdowns passes and just two interceptions.
In the Packers Week 8 setback 33-32 at the Falcons on Oct. 30, 2016, Rodgers was 28 for 38 for 246 yards, 60 rushing yards and four passing touchdowns.
In the NFC title game, while he had 287 yards passing, Rodgers was just 27 for 45 and all three of his touchdowns came when the game was decided. He was sacked twice and threw an interception and was never comfortable when the game was still in the balance.  
As previously mentioned when the Falcons meet on Sunday for Super Bowl LI, one team will be looking to add to their great history, that being the Patriots, while the Falcons will be looking to start making history of their own.
For the Patriots, this again will be an NFL record ninth appearance in the Super Bowl.
Since Week 13 of the regular season, the Patriots have for 88 percent of their games and been tied just 12 percent of those. The last time they trailed in a game was in Week 12 at the New York Jets (5-11) on Nov. 27, 2016 and they won that game 22-17.
Since purchasing the team on Jan. 21, 1994, owner Robert Kraft has seen the Patriots win 69.3 percent of their games, win 16 AFC East Division crowns, and participate in 40 playoff games during this time, winning 26 of them, including four Super Bowls. This all lead the NFL.
To put how far the Patriots have come into a clearer context, in their first 41 seasons of existence, they made the Super Bowl just twice losing both. In the last 16 seasons, they made seven Super Bowl appearances, winning as mentioned four of them.
If Brady leads the Patriots to victory in Super Bowl LI, it will give him five and break a tie with Montana and former Steelers signal caller and current NFL on FOX pregame and postgame analyst Terry Bradshaw.
This will be Brady’s sixth Super Bowl start and he leads all AFC signal callers in that category since 2001. Manning has made four starts on Super Sunday and Roethlisberger has had three.

If Brady wins MVP of Super Bowl LI, it will be his fourth and it would break another tie he has with Montana.

In the history of the Super Bowl, there have been 50 MVPs of the game, 27 of them  have been awarded to the quarterback of that game. Seven have gone to a running back; six to a wide receiver; four to a linebacker and six to other positions.
“I know we’re going to be playing a great team in a couple of weeks, but it be great to finish it off,” Brady said to Wolfson.
Belichick will be looking to win his fifth Super Bowl, breaking a tie with former Steelers head coach in Hall of Famer Chuck Knoll and with his seventh appearance on Sunday will break a tie with another Hall of Fame head coach in Don Shula.
He already has a resume that will have him in Canton, OH as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. That resume consists of a 201-71 record; a 24-9 postseason record; four Super Bowl wins and three NFL Coach of the Year Awards.
That success as Belichick said during the AFC Championship Trophy presentation, none of what the Patriots accomplished this year and in the past, does not happen without the players buying into the program and making the system work.
“Great players. It’s all about the players,” Belichick said to Nantz about how the Patriots reached the point of being one win away from another Super Bowl title. “We got great players. They work hard. Their unselfish and their tough.”
While it may not mean much right now, the Patriots will have a major advantage entering Super Sunday because they have won four of their five visits to NRG Stadium and it was here they won their second Super Bowl, when they defeated the Carolina Panthers 32-29 in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
For the Falcons, they are looking to become the first pro sports team in the place that is referred to as the “ATL” since the Atlanta Braves of MLB won it all back in 1995.
The Falcons are also seeking on Super Sunday to become the first highest scoring team in terms of total points in a season to win a Super Bowl. Seven other teams, who scored more in the regular season than the Falcons and failed to win it all.
“I think we’ll be confident for sure,” Ryan said to Washburn. “We’re a team that’s gotten better the entire year and I’m proud of it. I think good teams do that. You start at one spot and you keep getting better week in and week out and I really feel like we’ve done that.”
On top of that, Brady is 4-0 all-time versus the Falcons and they are one of six NFL teams he has not lost to in his career.

If the Falcons beat the Patriots on Super Sunday, they would join the 2009 Saints as the only teams to beat three straight Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in a postseason. It will be even sweeter considering the fact that they have not faced a signal caller that ranked in the Top 10 in passer rating all season long.
“Tom has had an unbelievable year. Played extremely well and been extremely efficient,” Ryan said of Brady at the close of last week.
Ryan also gave props to Tom Brady on how he has continued to be great as he has gotten older saying how he has always been consistent throughout his career. How incredibly dedicated he is to his craft from how he takes care of himself both mentally and physically and that he trains all year around so he is ready to roll when the season starts.

Brady shared similar thoughts about Ryan when he said earlier in the week that he's had an "MVP season."

"He doesn't need any advice. He's led his team to this point and he's an incredible player and he has been for that franchise and I have a lot of respect for Matt. Our defense has its work cut out for them."
It also does not help the Falcons cause that their defense will be going up against an offense that has had seven different players over the course of the regular season and postseason have multiple touchdowns in a game, tied for the most in the NFL.
One big advantage that the Falcons, who lost to the Denver Broncos and Hall of Famer John Elway 34-19 in Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami, FL have entering Super Bowl LI is that their offensive signal caller has been on a tear with four straight postseason games of three touchdown passes or more dating back to 2012.

The Falcons also are a team that knows how to start games as they were second in the NFL during the regular season with 130 points scored in the first quarter.
Who was No.1? The Patriots with 139 total first quarter points, but in their Super Bowl history have never scored a touchdown in the opening stanza in the Brady/Belichick era.

"We don't want to play this game from 24-0 or 24-3 or something like that where Green Bay ended up last week," Belichick said about the Patriots starting out fast on offense. "We got to avoid that."
This will also be the sixth contest of this season that the Falcons were an underdog coming into a game. History has served them well in this fashion because they have won four of the prior five contest outright.
The Falcons though will be going against a defense that this postseason is giving up on average of 16.5 points in their two games; just 247 passing yards; 79.5 yards rushing and they have five takeaways.

Counting the postseason, the Patriots have not allowed a 90-yard rusher in 25 straight games.

"They force you to sometimes be patient as a quarterback and to take what's there," Ryan said about the Patriots defense on Media Day earlier in the week. "When we do get out chances, we will have opportunities to make plays and score touchdowns."
If there is one thing that will make the difference for teams on Super Sunday, it will be which defense can slow down their opponent’s high octane offense.
For the Falcons, it will be up to linebacker Vic Beasley, Jr., who had 15.5 sacks on the season to get some pressure on Brady and for the defensive backs like Robert Alford, Keanu Neal, Brian Poole, and Ricardo Allen to contain the Patriots pass catchers.

"I'm just blessed to be on the same field as Tom Brady," Beasley said this week. "Future Hall of Famer. I got a lot of respect for that man."

In a joking kind of way, 15-year veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney of the Falcons, who saw a lot of Brady when he played with the Colts, especially in the postseason said, "It's just funny. Year 15 and I'm still seeing these guys here. I still got to worry about Tom Brady. "It's kind of like, 'Alright come on man. Have we had enough battles over the years.'"

"We're going to need to be at out best for those 70 plays and all the effort that we put in over the course of the season has come down to this," Brady said earlier this week about the Falcons defense that was ranked 27th in points allowed; 25th in total defense and 16th in takeaways.
The Patriots defensive unit of will have their hands full as well. It will be up to the defensive line of Chris Long, Alan Branch, Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown, Rob Ninkovich, and Jabaal Sheard to get pressure on Ryan, who will have gone two full months without throwing an interception when Super Bowl LI kicks off on Sunday night.

"You go a smart coach. A smart quarterback and smart players," Freeman said about the Patriots as a whole. "Off-course there going to figure out ways and scheme to stop us and game plan around us, but you know we got the same thing too."
The linebacker unit of Dont’a Hightower, Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy to contain Freeman and Coleman in the run game and intermediate passing game.
The defensive backs of Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Cyrus Jones, and Nate Ebner will have their hands full with the Falcons pass catchers, especially with Jones, who since entering the NFL in 2011 has the second most receiving yards with 7,610. Only Brown of the Steelers has more in that span with 8,210.

"Malcolm Butler is a great cornerback. What he is great at is jumping routes and the ability to get in and out," Jones said. "If they're going to double me, I have all the confidence in the world that my brothers are going to do their job.

"I see it as an even playing field. It's football," Sanu said. "They have to lineup the same way we have to and put on their cleats the same way and you got to go out there and play football."  

Coleman concurred by saying that, "It's going to be tough. This defense is so good. So great that there going to take Julio away, so it's going to leave opportunities for the backs to do some big things."
One thing is for sure we have two solid teams that will be facing each other in Super Bowl LI and each understands that reaching this point took a lot of blood sweat and tears, not to mentioned sacrifice and a commitment to the ultimate prize. This is something the Patriots understand all too well.
“We’ve won a lot of different ways under a lot of different circumstances,” Brady said to Nantz. ‘it’s mental toughness man. That’s what it’s all about and this team got it. We’ll see if we can write the perfect ending in a couple of weeks. It’s going to take a big effort. We’re going to need a couple of weeks to prepare because we’re playing a great team, but it’s going to be a hell of a game.”
Ninkovich, who has led the NFL in fumble recoveries since 2010 said something to that effect before the AFC title game two Fridays ago on ESPN’s “NFL Live” to Trey Wingo by saying that the Patriots journey to get to Super Bowl LI started in the off-season.
“So, for us, it’s having a good off-season,” said the guy with 46 career sacks and 10 forced fumbles. “Going into OTA’s [Off-season Training Activities], minicamps, training camp and understanding that you’re going to have to put the work in to get to the point that we’re at right now.”

Freeney concurred that point by saying about the Patriots that, "They consistently year in and year out, playoffs. Every other three or four years, Super Bowl. That is not something that is regular at all."
The fight for the right to be champions of Super Bowl LI and for the Pats to make more history or for the Falcons to start their own will take place at NRG Stadium at 6:30 p.m. Sunday night on FOX with Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Chris Myers, and Erin Andrews.
Information, statistics and quotations are courtesy of 1/20/17 ESPN 2 Bottom Line news crawl; 1/20/17 3 p.m. edition of ESPN’s “NFL Live,” with Trey Wingo, Mark Schlereth and Tedy Bruschi; 1/22/17 “State Farm Postgame Show,” following the 3 p.m. NFC Championship Game Green Bay Packers versus Atlanta Falcons on FOX with Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Chris Myers and Erin Andrews; 1/22/17 “Subway Postgame Show,” following the 6:40 p.m. AFC Championship Game Pittsburgh Steelers versus New England Patriots on CBS with Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson and Jay Feely; 1/26/17 Super Bowl news from ESPN Bottom Line news crawl; 1/27/17 6 p.m. CBS Sports Network’s edition of “Time to Schein,” with Adam Schein; 2/3/17 4:30 p.m. edition of "SportsNation," on ESPN with Marcellus Wiley and Shawn Merriman; www.espn.com/nfl/team/_/name/new/new-england-patriots; www.espn.com/nfl/team/_/name/atl/atlanta-falcons; http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Super_Bowl_XXXVI; http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Super_Bowl_Most_Valuable_Player_Award http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_England_Patriots; http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlanta_Falcons and http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Super_Bowl_XXXIII.   

J-Speaks: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly In January in NBA

A lot has happened in the National Basketball Association (NBA) at the start of 2017. “The Process” is finally producing positive results in the city of “Brotherly Love.” The starting lead guard in “Beantown” has stormed the history books in terms of scoring and a proud championship team was honored in the Pacific Northwest. The basketball team in “The Land” is going through some consistency issues that have their star player concerned and the star player in the “Big Apple” is dealing with trade rumors and his team is struggling. Things have become very frigid in the “Windy City,” especially between the star players, the role players and management. Here is The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in the NBA in January.
The Good
“The Process” Is Working in Philly
For the past three seasons, watching Philadelphia 76ers basketball was about as painful as seeing the same bad movie again, and again. The question became is when would the Sixers be good again? While they are still far away from being a solid team again, they have shown this month that “The Process” is working and producing wins.
With their 122-119 win versus the Sacramento Kings, coming back from 16 points down, the Sixers (18-29) won their 10 game of January in 15 games and it was the first time since January 2012 that they won 10 games in a month.
To give a better perspective on how far the Sixers have come, in their prior 68 games dating back to last season, the Sixers went just 11-57. In their last 16 games, they have gone 11-5.
In this month alone, the Sixers won at the Charlotte Hornets (23-25) 102-93 on Jan. 13; overcame a 14-point deficit in a 93-92 win versus the Portland Trail Blazers (21-28); on Jan. 20; their 94-89 win versus their Atlantic Division leading Toronto Raptors (29-19) 94-89 two days earlier ended a 14-game losing, garnering their first win against their division rivals since Jan. 18, 2013 and they overcame a 19-point deficit versus the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 24 for a 121-110 victory.
There are three players who have had played a major role in giving Philly fans hope for better days ahead. Rookie center Joel Embiid, current starting lead guard T.J. McConnell and starting forward Robert Covington.
Embiid, who finally got on the court after dealing with nagging injuries the last two seasons has been head and shoulders the best Rookie of the 2016-17 NBA campaign, leading all first-year players and the Sixers in scoring (20.2); rebounding (7.8) and blocks (2.5) despite being on a minute restriction of 25.4 and the fact that he has not played in back-to-backs so far.
To illustrate Embiid season so far, dating back to Dec. 23, 2016 to Jan. 20, the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year scored 20 points or more in the 10 straight games that he has played in. Dating back to the 1997-98 season only six players including Embiid had scored 20 points or more in eight straight games. He joined Keith Van Horn, who did it for the then New Jersey Nets in 1997-98 and so did that season’s Rookie of the Year and the recently retired forward of the San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan. Current New York Knicks forward and perennial All-Star Carmelo Anthony did it in 2003-04. Also on this list are All-Star forward Blake Griffin of the Clippers, who did it in 2010-11 and Trail Blazers lead guard Damian Lillard the 2012-13 Rookie of the Year.
Embiid increased his string to 10 straight games with a 26-point performance versus the Raptors, going 12 for 14 from the free throw line with nine rebounds.
“We’ve been winning so many games, especially so many games in a row,” Embiid said to reporters after the win versus the Raptors. “What I’m trying to do like I said before is change the culture and I like to get into it with the fans. I don’t like quiet. I play better when the fans are in to it. Chanting, ‘Trust the process. MVP.’ Cheering for us. That’s what I love.”
One other player who has emerged during January has been starting lead guard T.J. McConnell, who has averaged 9.1 points and 9.3 assists in the last 10 games.
While his numbers of 8.1 points, 9.3 assists and 4.0 boards on 47.2 percent shooting in 31.9 minutes this month may not jump off the page, he has given stability for Brett Brown on the court and made the offense functional unlike earlier in the season.
The best example of this was his last and biggest bucket of the night, a fall away left baseline jumper over Anthony in the closing moments that gave the Sixers a 98-97 victory versus the Knicks on Jan. 11. McConnell had eight points, six boards and seven assists in 34 minutes on the evening.
In the team’s 110-106 loss at the Boston Celtics (30-18) on Jan. 6, McConnell had a career-high of 17 assists to go along with nine points and four boards.
“We’ve been working really hard in practice. On our defense and I know I sound like a broken record, but we have one of the best home court advantages here and they help us out a lot,” McConnell, who has had 10 assists or more in five of the last six games this month said to Comcast SportsNet Philly’s Moll Sullivan after the game versus the Raptors.
Perhaps the one person who is appreciating this successful run the Sixers have been on the most is third-year forward Robert Covington, who had five double-doubles in January and averaged 13.7 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game in the month.
In the team’s victory versus the Trail Blazers he had 22 points and six boards on 8 for 17 from the field, including 5 for 12 from three-point range, and his fifth triple gave the Sixers the lead and eventually the win.
“T.J. just found me in the open position and I see daylight. He [the defender] had his hand down, so I just sat up there and let it fly,” Covington, who hit his league leading third go-ahead three-pointer in the final five seconds of regulation said to Sullivan after the win.   
Covington closed out the month in fine style with his second straight double-double with 23 points, 10 boards and four steals on 8 for 16 shooting, with four three-pointers in 11 tries.
The Sixers have come a long way from three straight seasons of hard to watch basketball that they put on display. So much so that currently stand just 4 ½ games out of the No. 8 and final playoff spot in the East. While it may still be too much to ask that they will make the postseason, they are at least competing a lot better and they are no longer a push over for their opponents. On top of that, they have fans believing of better days ahead, especially when No. 1 overall pick from this summer’s draft Ben Simmons play finally.
“As long as we continue to do what we doing and we got this city behind us, there’s no telling what we can do,” Covington said to Sullivan after the Sixers wins versus the Kings on Monday night. “We got great fans. Great coaching [head coach Brett Brown] staff. So, with you guys we can make it happen.
Thomas’ Historic Scoring Spree.
In the Boston Celtics (30-18) 104-88 loss versus the defending Western Conference Champion Golden State Warriors on Dec. 18, 2016, All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas had 18 points going 4 for 12 from the field, including just 1 for 6 from three-point range. It would be the last time that he scored under 20 points.
Since that game, Thomas has scored 20 points or more in 32 straight games, which is not only the longest streak of his young career, it is the second longest streak in Celtics’ history.
His latest stellar performance during great run came in front of a nationally televised audience on TNT when he scored 24 of his 41 points in the fourth quarter in leading the C’s pasted the struggling Detroit Pistons (21-27).
His 38-point performance in the Celtics’ 120-109 versus the Houston Rockets (35-16) on Jan. 25 surpassed Hall of Famer, former Celtic and NBATV/NBA on TNT analyst Kevin McHale for second place in the previously mentioned streak of games scoring 20 or more points.
He is now just eight games shy of the tying the record holder in Hall of Famer John Havlicek, who scored 20-plus points in 40 consecutive contest back in the 1971-72 campaign.
Thomas with that performance also tied Hall of Famer, three-time MVP as well as three-time NBA champion with the C’s in Larry Bird for most consecutive games with 25 points or more.  
One big reason that Thomas, the 60th and final pick in the 2011 draft out of University of Washington has been playing at a high level so far, this season has been the coaching he has received from the Celtic’s head man on the sidelines Brad Stevens.
“We’ve had numerous talks about a lot of the eyes on me. So, you got to allow me to coach you and I allow him to do that and I trust him and vice versa,” Thomas said to the NBATV “Gametime,” crew of Vince Cellini, Steve Smith and Mike Fratello last week.
“He trusts me on the floor. Sometimes he goes crazy when I shoot a crazy shot here and there, but for the most part, he gives me the reigns to figure it out while I’m out there and I love the guy for that.”
What has also helped Thomas is the fact that he carries the criticism he has heard for much of his life about him being too small and that will be the hinder him being great.
Thomas has used that motivation to go from the Celtic’s sixth man when he was acquired by GM Danny Ainge from the Phoenix Suns 2 ½ years ago, to their current starting lead guard; a two-time All-Star and a dark horse for league MVP this season.
“I want to be the best in the world,” Thomas said to NBA on TNT’s Kristen Ledlow after the game on Monday night. “I know winning takes care of all the individual success. As much as we win, then I guess I get the shine. But it’s all about just keep getting better. Staying the course and keep working.”
Trail Blazers Honor the 1977 Title Team
While the Portland Trail Blazers have had an up and down season to this point in the 2016-17, the organization gave their fans something great to cheer about as they paid homage to one of the best years in the history of the organization.
On Jan. 25 in the team’s 105-98 victory versus the Los Angeles Lakers on ESPN, their 11th win over their Western Conference rivals, the team honored the 1977 World Championship team, who won the Trail Blazers only title 40 seasons ago when they defeated Hall of Famer Julius “Dr. J.” Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers 4-2.
Two of the prominent members of that team were Lionel “L-Train” Hollins and Hall of Famer and former NBA broadcaster for NBC, ESPN/ABC and for the Los Angeles Clippers Bill Walton, whose son Luke is the head coach for the Lakers took some time to chat with the ESPN commentary crew of Dave Pasch and Doris Burke.
“The journey that we went through and the bond that we created has lasted 40 years now,” Hollins, the former head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies and Brooklyn Nets said to Pasch about what he remembers most about that team. “It’s been a special bond that developed over the journey that we went through to win a championship.”
“We’re having the time of our lives,” Walton concurred. “How great a team it was. How brilliant the coach was [referring to the late Hall of Famer and former ESPN NBA analyst Dr. Jack Ramsey]. How phenomenal the guys got along and still get along to this very day and the sense of joy. The sense of life. The sense of celebration I always felt the game of basketball to be.
While Walton was the star and the most recognizable player on that Trail Blazers team, the back and the most important player on that team was No. 20 Maurice Lucas, whose No. 20 sits in the rafters of the Moda Center in Portland, OR.
Walton said of Lucas, the team’s leading scorer and at 20.2 points per game and second leading rebounder that season at 11.4 per game that he was “the greatest teammate I’d ever had, but everybody on the team would say the exact same thing and he was everybody’s best friend. He had a remarkable level of softness. Be warm and fuzzy one second and the next one, just be so tenacious and over the top that he would scare the life out of the other team.”
Hollins said that Lucas was besides a great teammate, he was the team’s enforcer who took care of everything on the floor. If something needed to be handled in between the lines, Lucas was the guy who took care of those situations. On top of that, Hollins said that Lucas was a “great player.”
Walton also said that Lucas had two sayings. The first was, “I will take care of this and the second was, “If things don’t work out like I want them to, I will kill you on the spot.”
Perhaps the biggest thing when you win a title together is you learn so much about your teammates that you understand what it takes to get them going to help the team win, something Hollins touched on about a moment he and Walton had during a game against the Boston Celtics that season.
Hollins said how he was having a solid performance against the C’s and Walton runs over to him after he picked up his fourth personal foul and he says, “Quit playing defense. You’re going to foul out. You’re hot. You’re going to win the game for us.”
“He was all about winning,” Hollins said to Pasch and Burke. “He was all about what he could do to help his teammates be better and that from the top with Dr. Jack Ramsey, Bill right on down. All the guys were selfless and it was all about winning.”
What also gets lost about this team is that the Trail Blazers were the youngest team in the history of the NBA to win a title. The team was all about the team and not about how they can achieve individual success.
Very often young teams must experience failure in the postseason and learn how to win through becoming selfless in terms of playing together and not by individual heroics.
Back in the 1976-77 NBA campaign, the Trail Blazers, who were 49-33 that season defeated the mighty Denver Nuggets (50-32), led by Hall of Famer David Thompson and Dan “The Horse” Issel in the semis in six games. In the Western Conference Finals, they defeated the Lakers (53-29), who were led by Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and in the previously mentioned NBA Finals, came back from a 2-0 deficit by winning the next four games of the series to capture the title 107-107 in Game 6 on June 5, 1977.
This was back when if you had a good record, you earned a bye in the opening round of the NBA playoffs, which the Trail Blazers did.
The headline in June 6, 1977 edition of The Oregonian read “Blazers win!!!”
There was also a photo of Dr. Jack having champagne poured on top of him with his hands in the air.
One similarity with that Trail Blazer team and the team that came after is that they had consistent support from the fans, which Walton pointed out were a major reason they did what they did.
“The fans here, they pushed us. They drove us. They made us better than we ever possibly could be on our own,” Walton said of the fans, who filled the old Portland Memorial Coliseum as they do now at the Moda Center. “It was just an incredible relationship between the city, the state, the team. Maurice Lucas. Lionel Hollins. Bob Gross, who outplayed everybody he ever played against.”
Walton also said that Dr. Jack, who has a street near the Moda Center called N. Ramsey Way named after him, ran the Trail Blazers offensive attack through Gross, who set several playoff records during that playoff run because teams simply did not pay him that much attention in the scouting report.
“Jack. He made me the best player that I ever was,” Walton said of the late great Dr. Jack Ramsey, who also was a longtime color analyst for the Miami Heat, working alongside longtime play-by-play man for the team Eric Reid.
“When Jack came in, completely revamped the team. He brought in seven new players, including Maurice Lucas. Jack was intent. Insistent on calling plays and he always called the right one. He made us all better than we could possibly get on our own.”
Hollins said of Dr. Jack that he was the perfect coach for the team at that time and that they were a team that fit the mold of how he wanted to play. They were a quick, athletic group that liked to push the pace offensively and pressure the opponent up the court defensively.
“We were good for Jack Ramsey from that perspective because he’d been a great coach for a longtime, but he never had the perfect team that can play exactly how he wanted to play and we were that team and it was a beautiful picture to watch,” Hollins said.
Lucas was chosen second in the then NBA dispersal draft back then and Walton named his son after Luke.
He told Pasch and Burke that when Luke was born 37 years ago, Lucas, who Walton referred to as “Big Luke” came to his home and as a gift, which was a big picture of himself, with the inscription, “To little Luke: To make it in this world, you got to be tough. Big Luke.”
That picture hung over Luke’s bed for 18 years in the same home that he was born in, the same home that Bill and his wife Gloria still live in.
“It’s been a fantastic experience and relationship,” Walton, who during the broadcast was shown in a split screen of him in a red T-shirt of a replica of the team’s jerseys back then and of his son Luke on the Lakers bench in a suit and tie said.  
As mentioned earlier, besides his Hall of Fame career on the hardwood, Walton was one a fine NBA broadcaster for NBC in the 1990s and in his time with Mr. Ralph Lawler for the Clippers, Burke mentioned how the first NBA game she ever called for ESPN when her colleague then Tom Tolbert did not have to get into the arena sent an e-mail after the game to her.
In that e-mail, Walton had said that Burke did a great job on that broadcast and she said it was one of the best memories.
Walton put that moment into perspective during the interview when he said how the state of Oregon had a population of 350,000 people back in that season. Today that number is up to four million. He then said how Burke’s entrance into the NBA broadcast both was like another pioneer, who bridged the gap of sports in Hall of Famer Ann Meyers Drysdale.
Another development that took place on that day that Walton mentioned that longtime commentator, who was the play-by-play man of that NBA Finals for CBS was the great Brent Musburger, who final play-by-play broadcast was on Tuesday night on ESPN SEC Network when University of Georgia Bulldogs took on the Kentucky Wildcats.
There have been a lot of champions in the NBA’s history. There have a lot of great players and Hall of Famers that led those teams to the top of the NBA mountain, more than once in some cases. There are a few title teams that stand by themselves and hold a special place in their respective sports and the Portland Trail Blazers 1977 championship team is one of those team.
How revered was that team? Walton said for the 20th Anniversary reunion at the old Memorial Coliseum, fans had a chance to make a shot from half court, which no one manage to hit and Lucas in a three-piece suit banked in a shot from half court during the ceremony.
For the 30th reunion, Walton said that the NBA honored the team and Dr. Jack spoke and besides talking about the greatness of that title team, he said who he “liked their chances” against any of the other great title teams in NBA history.  
In homage to the late Dr. Jack, Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts wore a vintage plaid blazer jacket in honor of the late head coach of the Trail Blazers. Stotts said to Pasch during the in between quarters sideline interview between the third and fourth that he bought the jacket from a vintage store.
The Heat Is Back On
When the greatest player in Miami Heat history Dwyane Wade, who helped the franchise win three titles departed in free agency and perennial All-Star Chris Bosh failed his physical because of blood clots, which essentially ended his playing career, it was clear as day that the Miami Heat were entering rebuilding mode. With six losses in their first seven games in January, it seemed like a lost season and a long road back to playoff contention. Things have turned for the better since then.
The team has reeled off seven consecutive, which began with a 109-103 win versus the Rockets on Jan. 17. Their biggest win of this streak was their third one when they took the Warriors 105-102, thanks to a straight away game-winning triple by guard Dion Waiters, who tied his career-high with 33-points on 13 for 20 shooting, including 6 for 8 from long distance.
“These are the moments you want to live for, especially against a great team like that, Waiters, who scored 33 points two days earlier in the Heat’s 109-97 win versus the Milwaukee Bucks said after the game.
Games like the ones he has put together lately are what many expected out of the former No. 4 overall pick in the 2012 draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Unfortunately, his work ethic in the early stages of his career did not always match his talent.
In his first season with the Heat, who he signed with in free agency this off-season, he became part of an organization that has been known for getting the most out of guys who have a world of skill and as a part of a championship culture led by team president Pat Riley and head coach Erik Spoelstra, you either put up or you do not last.
That is what has happened for Waiters, who missed 20 games earlier in the season due to a groin injury and the Heat went just 5-15 in that stretch.
When Waiters, returned he struggled in his first four games back scoring a total of 29 points on 12 for 40 shooting. Since then he has scored in double-figures in each game during this winning streak.
He is not the only Heat player that has risen their level of play during this winning streak. Starting lead guard Goran Dragic has amped up his play with averages of 21.9 points, six assists and 4.3 boards on 51.7 percent from the field.  
He had 21 points, eight boards and eight assists in the team’s win versus the Rockets. The guy who is also referred to as “The Dragon,” had 32 points and six assists, going 11 for 15 from the field in the Heat’s 99-95 win versus the Dallas Mavericks (18-30). In the Heat’s come from behind 109-106 win at the Brooklyn Nets, Dragic had a near triple-double of 17 points, nine boards and nine assists and the Heat’s 100-88 win at Bulls, in Wade’s new house, Dragic had 26 points, 11 assists and five boards.
What has also occurred during the Heat’s win streak, the longest current run in the league is that they have gotten major contributions from the likes of James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Willie Reed, Okaro White and Rodney McGruder.
If some of these names do not sound familiar to you is because these players are a combination of journeyman, who joined the Heat in the off-season and in the case of White were a D-League call up because of the Heat have had injuries to the likes of cornerstones Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, and Josh McRoberts. Both Winslow, torn labrum in his left shoulder and McRoberts, stress fracture in left foot are gone for the rest of the season.
This has allowed the previously mentioned group of players to get some major game minutes and they have produced big time and the Heat have reaped the rewards of that with as mentioned seven wins in a row.
Currently, the Heat are five games on the loss side of the No. 8 and final playoff spot in the East. Even if they do not make it, the future in South Florida looks a lot better than it did at the start of this season.
Riley and the organization have who they believe are their cornerstones in starting center Hassan Whiteside, Winslow, and Richardson. What the rest of the current team does the remainder of the season will go a long way in determining how the rest of the roster will be filled around them going forward.
The Bad
Anthony of the Knicks on Trading Block?
There was a time as hard it is to believe now that the New York Knicks (21-29) were 14-10 and above the playoff line in the East. They have lost 18 games of their last 25 games, going 5-12 in January, and things have gotten worse and now the rumors of Anthony, despite having a no trade clause in his contract, the Knicks have reached out to other teams about seeing if they are interested in acquiring him.
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports has reported earlier this month that the Knicks have reached out to the Atlantic Division rival Celtics and the Clippers about seeing if they would be interested about acquiring Anthony.
There was also a published report that the Knicks approached the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers about them acquiring Anthony in exchange for All-Star forward Kevin Love, but the Cavs turned down that offer.
Near the close of January, it was reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports that the Knicks contacted the Atlantic Division rival Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Clippers about making a deal to trade Anthony to them.
Earlier this month, Anthony and Knicks’ president Phil Jackson had a quick meeting and he said to Jackson that he does not want to be traded and that he wants to stay in the “Big Apple” and help get this team back on track.
Even if any of those teams were interested, Anthony would still have to approve the deal and waive his no-trade clause in the contract that he signed two summers ago, which pays him $124 million over four years.
“I really don’t have a reaction to it,” Anthony said in regards to the situation. “Until management comes to me and says something, then it’s not something to look forward to or feed into it at this point. I really don’t have a reaction to it.”
What will help the Knicks right now is winning basketball games and giving consistent effort on both ends of the court.
They have shown some signs in the last four games of this month, going 2-2. Unfortunately, they could easily be 0-4 and their last game to close the month, a 142-139 four-overtime game at the Atlanta Hawks (28-20), the 11th 4OT game in NBA history, is a perfect example.
Anthony led the way with 45 points on 18 for 36 shooting, but he fouled out in the second overtime. The Knicks still had a chance in the final seconds, but Courtney Lee could not hit a three-pointer in two chances.
In the month of January alone, the Knicks have had six games decided by one possession and they lost all six games.
If things do not turn around soon, those rumblings for the Knicks to do something are only going to get louder and louder.
Thunder Lose Key Reserve
While Westbrook has been the main cog for the Oklahoma City Thunder (28-19) this season and why they are a playoff team even without Kevin Durant, who again signed this offseason with the Golden State Warriors, perhaps the other important player on their team is backup forward/center Enes Kanter. Unfortunately for them, they will be without his services for a lengthy period.
In the Thunder’s 109-98 win versus the Dallas Mavericks, Kanter, the team’s third leading scorer at 14.4 points per game and their second leading rebounder at 6.7 per contest fractured the ulna in his right forearm by punching a chair after being upset about something during a play in the second quarter.
Erik Holmes reported in Friday’s edition of The Oklahoman that Kanter had successful surgery on that injured forearm and will be re-evaluated in four weeks. It was reported that Kanter will be on the shelf for six-to-eight weeks.
Without Kanter, the Thunder lose what many consider the best offensive center in the game in terms of a guy who can score down low.
“It’s very unfortunate, but things happen and if he wanted to take it back, he would,” Westbrook, who had 45 points and eight boards on the night said after the game.”
“It’s tough, especially doing it the way he did it. I think it’s unfortunate, but he’s a strong man and he’ll be back.
Starting center Steven Adams said of Kanter’s injury as “one of those perfect things honestly.”
“He didn’t mean to do it obviously. It just was one of those really frustrating time where he just happened to do what he did. No one else can as hard as he is on himself…Give him some time. He’ll be back.
Until then, it will be up to the Adams, Rookie forward Domantas Sabonis and Joffrey Lauvergne to pick up the slack and Westbrook, who had his 24th triple-double and the 61st of his career of 20 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in the Thunder’s 107-91 loss at the Cavs on Sunday must do even more to keep the Thunder rolling.  
The Ugly
Rough Goings for The Champs
Through Dec. 25, 2016, the Cleveland Cavaliers (32-15) were 23-6 and rolling in the East. Since then, they are just 8-9 and in the month of January just 7-8 and they have been very inconsistent, particularly at the defensive end. That has resulted in the four-time MVP LeBron James really expressing his frustrations in a very loud manner.
Despite superb performances by the “Big Three” of James, who had a triple-double of 26 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists; Kyrie Irving led the way with 35 of his 49 points in the second half, going 15 for 28 from the field, including 8 for 14 from three-point range and Love who had 22 points, 16 boards and six assists, the Cavs lost at the New Orleans Pelicans (19-29) 124-122 eight days ago, who were without All-Star forward/center Anthony Davis.
After the game, James said to reporters, “We’re not better than last year, from a personnel standpoint… We’re a top heavy team. I just hope that we’re not satisfied as an organization. I’ll be 33 years old in the winter and I ain’t got time to waste… We need a [expletive] playmaker. I’m not saying you can just go find one, like you go outside and see trees. I didn’t say that. It’s been an [expletive] 2017 so far.”
On his twitter page @KINGJAMES, he tried to walk back his bold words by saying, “I’m not or upset at management cause Griff [GM David Griffin] and staff have done a great job, I just feel like we need to improve in order to repeat.”
It did not get any better two nights later when the Cavs lost at home versus the Kings 116-112 in overtime, thanks to a dismal 17 for 34 performance from the free throw line, and 18 turnovers that led to 19 Kings points.
Another triple-double by James, his second straight, fifth on the season and 47th of his career of 24 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists was waisted and so was the 28th double-double on the season for Love of 21 points and 16 boards to go along with five assists and the 20 points and six assists from Irving.
James after the game addressed some news that came out about the team being interested in acquiring All-Star forward of the Knicks Carmelo Anthony, to which James said to reporters, “I have no reaction. We got 14 guys in here, who need to be ready every night. What we got in here, we got to play. Can’t play fantasy basketball. We got who we got. We got to go out and play.”
Before the Cavs latest setback versus the Kings, James, Griffin, and head coach Tyronn Lue to reject the report of them trying to acquire Anthony in exchange for Love.
James also said about comments he made about owner Dan Gilbert spending money to improve the team, “He’s the owner of the team. I’m a player on the team. I think all 14 guys have a working relationship with all of them. It’s not about me or him. It’s a nonissue.”  
To illustrate the little amount of wiggle, room the Cavs have at their disposal, they have the highest pay roll in the league this season at $128 million, as mentioned on basketball-reference.com. That is followed by the $116 million by the Clippers; $112 million by the Trail Blazers; $110.6 by the Mavericks and $110.4 million by the Memphis Grizzlies.
On top of that, a report from Forbes on Friday said that the Cavs lost $40 million last season, despite winning it all a season ago.
The team got back on track to close last week out with a 124-116 win versus the struggling Brooklyn Nets (9-39), who were handed their 15th loss of the month by the Cavs in 16 opportunities. They followed that up with 107-91 win versus the Oklahoma City Thunder (28-20) on Sunday afternoon on ABC, led by the double-doubles from Irving, who had 29 points and 10 assists and the 25 points and 14 rebounds from James, to go along with eight assists.
James, who had 31 points, 11 assists and five boards said after the win versus the Nets to sideline reporter Allie Clifton of FOX Sports Ohio’s that he is happy that the team is going through this rough patch right now in January.
“It lets us know we got a lot of work to do and that’s good. That’s good for a team,” he said.
It is in moments like this the absence of J.R. Smith who is on the mend because of injury really comes into play. Also, the fact that over the off-season three key players in Irving’s understudy Matthew Dellavedova; backup center Timofey Mozgov and guard Mo Williams moved on to the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers respectably and in the case of Williams, he essentially retired.
Speaking of what is good for the team, the Cavs yesterday brought in veterans Kirk Hinrich; former teammate of James’ when he was with the Heat Mario Chalmers and former Indiana Pacer Lance Stephenson for a workout to see who they want to sign if possible.
From the outside looking in, the recent struggles by the defending champs just seems like a rough patch that most teams go through in a season and the fact that each time they take the court either at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, OH or on the road, they are that opponent’s measuring stick. Having said that, to James he sees what the Warriors are doing and particularly the San Antonio Spurs (36-11), who beat the Cavs 118-115 in overtime 11 nights ago, he understands that the team needs to improve if they want to repeat, especially with Love, who is on the mend because of a back injury. If they do make it back to The Finals, it is a great possibility they will see either the Spurs or the Warriors again.
“We just want to play well,” James said to Clifton after the team’s win over the Nets on Friday. “Wins and losses will take care of itself. When you play well and do what you need to do out on the floor and I think we did that tonight.”
Turmoil in the “Windy City Again”  
After a 105-100 win on Dec. 10, 2016 versus the Heat, the Chicago Bulls (24-25) were 13-10 and looked like a team that was going to have a say in the East this season. Since then, they have gone 11-15 since and it seems like things are only getting worse. The frustration level really game ahead after a tough loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
Leading by 10 points with 3:02 remaining, the Hawks used a 19-4 run to close the game and beat the Bulls in their house 119-114, as they were outscored 41-31 in the fourth quarter
After the loss, the two lynchpins of the Bulls in All-Star guard Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade, who had 40 and 33 points respectably held nothing back after the game to the press in the locker room.
“If you don’t come into this [expletive] locker room pissed off after you lose like any game. If you’re not pissed off that you lost, somethings wrong,” Butler said. “Who cares whose shining. When we’re winning, everybody looks great. Everybody’s doing what their supposed to do. I don’t think that’s happening right now. I really don’t. I want to play with guys who care, guys who play hard, who want to do well for this organization, who want to do whatever it takes to win.”
Wade followed that up by saying to reporters by his locker, “I don’t know how you fix it. It just doesn’t mean enough for guys around here to want to win ball games. It pisses me off, but I can’t be frustrated and I can’t care too much for these guys. They have to care for themselves.”
Bulls guard Rajon Rondo responded on his Instagram page saying that his championship teammates from the Celtics’ 2007-08 in future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, that he spent six seasons with would have never expressed their frustration like the publicly.
He said in the post alongside a photo of him Garnett and Pierce, “My vets would never go to the media. They would come to the team. My vets didn’t pick and choose when they wanted to bring it. They brought it every time they stepped in the gym whether it was practice or a game. They didn’t take days off. My vets didn’t care about numbers. My vets played for the team. When we lost, they wouldn’t blame us. They took responsibility and got in the gym. They showed the young guys what it meant to work. Even in Boston when we had the best record in the league, if we lost a game, you could hear a pin drop on the bus. They showed the seriousness of the game. My vets didn’t have an influence on the coaching staff. They couldn’t change the plan because it didn’t work for them. I played under one of the greatest coaches, and he held everyone accountable. It takes 1-15 to win. When you isolate everyone, you can’t win consistently. I maybe a lot of things, but I’m not a bad teammate. My goal is to pass what I learned along. The young guys work. They show up. They don’t deserve blame. If anything is questionable, It’s the leadership.”
After the Bulls morning shoot around on Friday, Jan. 27 Wade, Butler, and Rondo said to the press that they will get through this like adults and professionals.
“I’m a professional,” Wade said. “I’ve been a big supporter of Rondo out in the public eye with everything he’s been dealing with being taken out of the starting lineup and how he’s handle it. I have no issues. No problems with Rondo at all.”
Rondo, who is averaging just 6.7 points, 6.5 assists, 5.5 boards on 37.0 percent shooting this season said that he was not trying to be the bad guy, but he felt that speaking up for some of the young guys on the team who felt that they could not speak freely he was going to speak freely for them about what has happened to a team that had higher expectations for this season.
“I won’t lose sleep at night,” Rondo said. “I will continue to be Rajon Rondo and that’s all I can be. I going to come in here and work. Do what I can for this team, while I’m here. However, they use me and that’s what it’s going to be.”
Before the Bulls Friday night tilt with the surging Miami Heat, GM Gar Forman said that the organization is “extremely disappointed” with the recent comments made by the players to press and on social media and that the situation was dealt with internally.
“Every team has issues and it’s our strong belief that when you have issues or critical comments that you keep those issues or critical comments in house,” Forman, via the Chicagotribune.com said.  
Head coach Fred Hoiberg in response to all of this said that Rondo, Wade, and Butler would not be suspended, but were each fined an undisclosed amount for their comments and Wade and Butler did not start Friday nights tilt versus the Heat, a game in which they lost 100-88.
It is quite clear that Rondo, who signed with the Bulls over the summer that he clearly wants out of the “Windy City.” It is also quite clear that the roster that the Bulls’ management was a mismatch and that head coach Fred Hoiberg clearly does not have the kind of roster that can play his style of basketball and they are losing game more often than they are winning.
It is hard to believe that just three years ago, this was a team that the pure definition of discipline, toughness, and confidence. That was under head coach Tom Thibodeau, who the Bulls let go two summers ago, and he is now the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Despite going 8-7 in January, they are the No. & Seed in the East right now and would be in the playoffs if they started right now. If they do not begin to develop any sort of consistency going forward, a season full of promise and optimism could end in a second straight season of no postseason action and a lot of questions about this team’s future moving forward.
Information, statistics, and quotations are courtesy of 1/21/17 2 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” presented by State Farm with Casey Stern, Steve Smith and Caron Butler; 1/25/17 12:30 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” presented by Kia Motors with Rick Kamla, Steve Smith and Isiah Thomas; 1/25/17 10:30 p.m. contest Los Angeles Lakers versus Portland Trail Blazers on ESPN with Dave Pasch and Doris Burke; 1/26/17 2 a.m. NBATV’s “Gametime,” with Vince Cellini, Steve Smith and Mike Fratello; 1/26/17, 5:30 p.m. and the 1/27/17, 7 p.m. edition NBATV’s “The Starters,” with Tas Melas, J.E. Skeets, Leigh Ellis and Trey Kerby; 1/28/17 2 a.m. edition NBATV’s “Gametime,” presented by State Farm with Casey Stern, Sam Mitchell and Rex Chapman; 1/30/17 1 a.m. edition of “Inside the NBA” on TNT with Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal;  www.nba.com; www.espn.com/nba/teams; www.espn.com/nba/statistics; www.espn.com/nba/standings; www.nba.com/games/20170125/LALPOR#/recap and www.espn.com/nba/player/_/id/6447/enes-kanter.