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NBA Highlights From December 27th-January 2nd

The last week of 2021 gave NBA teams a unique opportunity to finish strong before aiming for a strong start in the New Year of 2022. As we approach the halfway point of this regular season in a matter of weeks, the action will intensify amongst teams determined to build their momentum further or drastically improve their situation. Down below are my four takeaways from the NBA’s latest week in action.

DeMar DeRozan should be on your MVP ballot

Even with fans and media members quick to name the usual candidates for this year’s MVP award (I.E., Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry, to name a couple), their dialogue lacks something if DeRozan isn’t mentioned. The multi-time All-Star has not only led the Chicago Bulls to the first seed in the Eastern Conference, but he’s easily the NBA’s most clutch player right now.

During the same week, DeRozan became the first player in league history to make game-winners on consecutive days; he averaged 28 points, six assists, and four rebounds per game during the Bulls’ ongoing seven-game winning streak.

Ja Morant’s leap into superstardom is happening

While some may have expected this to happen, it doesn’t make it less exciting than it is. In Morant’s third NBA season, he is taking that leap into superstardom which consists of a career-best production, team success, and signature moments that could make him a dark-horse MVP candidate this season.

To conclude 2021, we watched the former second overall pick outduel LeBron James two days after making a game-winning shot against the 28-8 Phoenix Suns on the road.

To say Jalen Smith has potential is an understatement

Even though the Phoenix Suns found a successful big man in Deandre Ayton (Selected first in the 2018 Draft), it was a rare bit of success for a team who has failed multiple times when looking for high-quality big men. But that could change again with the pending emergence of Jalen Smith.

The second-year power forward, who is thriving as a center at the moment, gives the Suns another very athletic and flexible big man to play regardless of Ayton’s availability. Over his past four games, Smith has averaged 16 points and ten rebounds per game while playing less than 30 minutes each game.

Kevin Love is turning back the hands of time

After months of hearing about a potential breakup with the Cleveland Cavaliers and having a slow start to this season, Love is back to playing at the level one would expect from a multi-time All-Star and Olympic Gold Medalist. Throughout December, Love averaged 17 points and over seven rebounds per game, but he’s entering the new year amid his best stretch in a long time.

Over his last five games, Love averaged 25 points and eight rebounds per game, including his 35-point and 11 rebounds performance against the Atlanta Hawks on New Year’s Eve. Love’s reemergence is a welcomed sight for a Cavs team that needs all contributions as they compete for a playoff berth.

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The Five Things We Learned Most About Sports In 2021

Sports tend to teach us incredible lessons on any occasion throughout a year, but what we learned in 2021 may have been the most taught to us in a long time. If there’s anything I took away from sports this year, it’s that not everything is what it seems, and anything is beyond possible. Below are the five things we learned most from watching sports in 2021.

Dominance comes in different shapes and sizes

At the beginning of our relationship with sports, we were constantly presented with images of what dominant athletes looked like– all in great shape and deemed “perfect.” But in 2021, the likes of Tyson Fury and Nikola Jokic showed you could achieve dominance in your field even if that weren’t the case.

Fury, the undefeated world heavyweight boxing champion, and Jokic, the reigning NBA MVP, dominated their opponents with their unique blend of size, mental toughness, and intelligence despite lacking in other areas that some fans, and even their peers, believe are the most important to have.

Sports is now positionless

While positions in team sports will always exist, this past year really proved there are simply labels for the identification of players. In sports such as basketball and soccer, we watch everyone possess a similar skillset and push the boundaries for where the game is going next– a reality that was incomprehensible for some even a decade ago.

The Olympics allowed every country to have their moment

Despite the Tokyo Olympics being delayed a year because of the initial start to this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s most significant athletic competition was back in action this past summer. And among the various things we witnessed, it was the dominance a multitude of countries had in any sport.

As the United States maintained its lead in sports such as basketball, Great Britain excelled in boxing, and China shined the most in diving, with an extensive trail of countries putting the world on notice in their respective sports.

Women’s athletics is the home of trail blazers

While naysayers will continue to hate women’s athletics in any way possible wrongfully, this was an excellent year for women’s athletics. Sports such as basketball, gymnastics, and tennis saw their talent level get advanced on every level. A new wave of exciting talent got introduced in mixed martial arts and softball.

But most importantly, a majority of women’s athletics utilized their platforms to highlight issues in race relations, pay disparity, and equal rights.

Age is nothing but a number if you’re Tom Brady or LeBron James

Earlier this year, sports fans marveled (or groaned) at the sight of quarterback Tom Brady winning his seventh Super Bowl title. At the age of 44-years-old, Brady is balancing the act of dominating his competition and still improving, a situation 37-year-old LeBron James is going through in the NBA.

This is a massive development as the narrative around an athlete’s prime and longevity is revised. It will get accepted that their “prime” is much longer than everybody else for some players.

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Which NFL Head Coaches Are On The Hot Seat?

Even though the future of NFL head coaches is always speculated, it tends to reach another level when the regular season is approaching its final weeks. From first-timers to established veterans, coaches can be relieved of their duties if their franchise believes a change is needed. With two weeks remaining in this NFL season, let’s look at the head coaches who are in danger of losing their job and are officially on the hot seat.

Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears (5-10 and eliminated from playoff contention)

It’s been three years since Nagy’s successful first season as the Bears head coach, in which he won 12 games and was named the NFL’s Coach of the Year. Since then, Nagy hasn’t produced another season with either double-digit wins or a playoff appearance, and there’s uncertainty around his ability to develop rookie quarterback Justin Fields.

Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks (5-10 and eliminated from playoff contention)

While it wouldn’t be a surprise if Carroll and the Seahawks remain together next season, given the number of injuries and changes that transpired, all signs still point to a break-up within a few weeks. Along with the team being 5-10, their worst record ever in Carroll’s tenure as head coach, the Seahawks haven’t made the NFC Championship in eight years.

Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings (7-8 and one game out of the Wild Card race)

A season without a playoff appearance hasn’t been uncommon in the Mike Zimmer era in Minnesota (It has happened four times). But if the Vikings miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season, things can go left. Like Carroll, Zimmer and the Vikings have been together for nearly ten years, and you have to wonder if there’s any room for growth and success.

Vic Fangio, Denver Broncos (Currently 7-8 and one game out of the Wild Card race)

To say the Broncos’ 3-0 start earlier this season feels like a distant memory is an understatement. Minus getting a pair of late-season wins and a lot of help from opposing teams, Fangio will miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season, and the Broncos are in the worst position possible: A team that’s stuck in the middle.

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The Cowboys Are In The Top Three of Week 17 NFL Power Rankings

With two weeks remaining in the regular season, nearly every team’s future is now clear as day, with the only question being how will their season conclude? With several teams amid their final push towards the postseason or a high first-round pick in next year’s Draft, chaos is the only thing guaranteed at this time of the year. Below are our latest power rankings before entering Week 17 of this NFL season.

1. Green Bay Packers (12-3)

The Packers’ defense produced another stellar performance on Christmas as they forced Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield into four interceptions while also sacking him five times. Another highlight from their 24-22 victory was Aaron Rodgers finally becoming the franchise’s all-time leader in passing touchdowns (45).

2. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4)

Not only are the Chiefs maintaining their newfound success on defense, but they’re back to clicking on all cylinders on offense via with their 39 points per game average over their last three games.

3. Dallas Cowboys (11-4)

Fewer wins are more important and impressive than a pair of dominant wins over your most competitive divisional rival. The Cowboys had led by double-digits against the Washington Football Team in seven out of eight quarters, with that lone quarter happening in their first matchup in Week 14.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-4)

As expected, the reigning Super Bowl champion let the next man step up, and they continued their path towards a championship repeat by handling the Carolina Panthers, 32-6.

5. Los Angeles Rams (11-4)

By winning their fourth consecutive game last Sunday, the Rams are now the leader in the NFC West and occupy the third seed in their conference. If anything, don’t rule them out of the race for the No. 1 seed!

6. Indianapolis Colts (9-6)

The surging AFC South competitor (winners of six out of their seven past games) continues to control their postseason destiny by winning a huge primetime game on the road against the Arizona Cardinals. To punch a ticket to the playoffs, the Colts will likely have to win out and eliminate the need for help from any teams.

7. Buffalo Bills (9-6)

The Bills are back in the position many expected them to be, and that’s leading the AFC East. At this point, the Bills have to maintain their lead in their division and aim to grab the AFC’s third seed when the playoffs arrive.

8. New England Patriots (9-6)

While their recent seven-game winning streak, and being the AFC’s No. 1 seed, might feel like a distant memory, the Patriots have the same record as their divisional rival, the Bills, who are the AFC’s fourth seed. If you were to ask anyone from the Patriots what they care about most right now, it’s making the playoffs by any means necessary.

9. Tennessee Titans (10-5)

The Titans showed a lot of resilience during their 20-17 comeback victory against the San Francisco 49ers last Thursday. Despite their season-long inconsistencies and injury problems, the Titans are now in contention for the first seed in the AFC as they’re currently second.

10. Arizona Cardinals (10-5)

As previously mentioned in last week’s rankings, the Cardinals have to figure out how quickly they can solve their recent struggles. Even with a playoff spot officially clinched, the former NFC West leader needs to right their ship before the playoffs arrive.

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NBA Highlights From December 20th-26th

Even though daily news of NBA players and coaches having to enter health protocols have become common, it was nice to go through a week where the focus was on the games. Alongside the league’s annual slate of Christmas Day matchups, there was plenty to watch and learn from an assortment of players and teams who made one last statement before this year ended. Down below are my four takeaways from the league’s latest week in action.

Harden and Westbrook represent the line between success and failure

Besides being teammates twice throughout their illustrious careers (First in Oklahoma City and then Houston), James Harden and Russell Westbrook have a lot in common as arguably two of social media’s most criticized yet accomplished superstars. But last Saturday, we discovered what makes the two players different and ultimately favors one of them to win their elusive first championship.

As the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers competed in a 122-115 thriller that was won by the Nets, Harden’s combination of efficient and timely playmaking and scoring (36 points, ten rebounds, and ten assists) outlasted Westbrook’s inconsistent and ugly performance (13 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists). Despite struggling for most of this season, Harden has found ways to ultize his strengths to benefit his team; an action Westbrook has not discovered yet in LA.

When will help arrive for the Joker?

As much as NBA Twitter loves to proclaim their favorite player should be “freed” or given additional help, no one is more deserving of either claim than Nikola Jokic. “The Joker” is having an all-time season (he’s on pace to break the record for highest player efficiency rating at 33.33) and could win league MVP again if reinforcements arrive by his side in Denver.

With dynamic guard Jamal Murray’s return from his torn ACL injury still unknown and forward Michael Porter Jr being out because of his back injury, one has to wonder if the Nuggets could make a trade or two for additional scoring and playmaking that lessens Jokic’s load.

Keldon Johnson is worthy of your attention

Regardless of how you’re watching the NBA on a nightly basis, there’s one player who is worthy of your time: Keldon Johnson. The third-year San Antonio Spur, who you may remember as a late-minute addition to the US Men’s gold-medal-winning basketball team last summer, is quickly becoming one of the team’s best players, and rightfully so.

Johnson is averaging a career-high in points and rebounds per game (15 and 6.6) while also shooting a remarkable 47% from the three-point line. The Kentucky product’s development is a more than welcomed sign for the Spurs, who already have a promising talent in Dejounte Murray.

Houston is balancing Jalen Green’s development and their desire to compete

While some teams love to have dynamic, young talent and still collect high lottery picks, others are fine with having young talent who could help them win right away (Think Evan Mobley and Cleveland). Even though the Houston Rockets, and their 2021 No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green, aren’t in a position to compete for the playoffs, they’re happy with being competitive and making each other better.

Despite the team’s seven-game winning streak earlier this month without Green because of his injury, the Rockets would rather have him on the court. Out of 19 games played, Green has scored 20 points five times and proves to be a viable offensive threat with his athleticism and, at times-solid shooting. It’s just a matter of making him more effective while also eliminating their tendency for extensive losing streaks.

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What We Learned From This Year’s NBA On Christmas Games

Amidst all the concerns about rising COVID cases and player entries in their health protocols, the NBA managed to have another star-studded and exciting day of Christmas Day games. Whether it was Kemba Walker achieving a first-time accomplishment to both of the last-minute thrillers that occurred in Phoenix and Los Angeles, here are our three biggest takeaways from this year’s NBA on Christmas games.

Kemba is making the most of his return to action

There was an ongoing discussion regarding Kemba Walker and his career for three weeks due to his surprise benching by New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau— who attributed Walker’s benching to his lack of aggression. But over the past week, the former All-Star guard is not only playing again, but he’s making history in the process.

During the team’s 101-87 victory against their close rival Atlanta Hawks, Walker produced a triple-double (10 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists) and became the first Knick to accomplish that feat on Christmas. “It’s kind of hard to put it into words, to be honest,” Walker said after the game. “It was special, just to be home, with that New York on my chest … a New York City kid, born and raised. It felt amazing.”

Giannis proves why he’s the best player in the world

Even though the conversation about who is the best player will always exist, there are times where there’s a clear answer. Last Saturday, Antetokounmpo presented an open and shut case for his claim as the best player in the league via his spectacular second-half performance against the Boston Celtics.

When looking beyond the reigning Finals MVP’s stat-line (36 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists), Antetokounmpo’s impact on both ends of the floor became a massive obstacle for the Celtics to overcome, despite leading by double digits throughout the game, including with five minutes remaining in regulation.

The Warriors and Nets proved their toughness in last-minute thrillers

During primetime matchups such as the Golden State Warriors vs. the Phoenix Suns or the Brooklyn Nets vs. Los Angeles Lakers, the idea of a measuring test existing between either team comes to life. And while there was much to observe in both of those two games, one thing was for sure. The Warriors and the Nets are the best teams in their conferences.

Even with several key contributors and stars out of action and playing in challenging environments, the Nets and Warriors relied on their toughness and “next man up” mentality to secure a pair of big wins. At this point of the season, speculation could be created for a potential Finals matchup between these two teams.

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The Development of Bronny James Is A Massive Success

Even though his name generates a ton of attention, please make no mistake about Bronny James and his game. The Class of 2023, four-star prospect is as good as advertised and is having a good season for top-three-ranked national powerhouse Sierra Canyon. And while he’s on a team with so much talent, including 2022 five-star UCLA commit Amari Bailey, Bronny is having his moments of being the best and most impactful player on the court.

Since the start of his high school career, Bronny’s development has been fueled by his growth spurt (now 6-foot-3), athleticism, and ability to impact the game on both ends of the floor. Even though he is unlikely to carry similar offensive responsibilities like his father, four-time NBA MVP LeBron James, Bronny thrives as a combo guard who is comfortable playing on and off the ball and can shoot lights out from the three-point line. That’s a good sign for his future as a high-level collegiate player and potential pro.

There have been plenty of times during games where LeBron’s eldest son is coming off of screens, exchanging spots on the perimeter, and running hard in transition, giving him additional opportunities to score. This was evident during Bronny’s 19 point performance against his father’s alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary, on national television earlier this month.

While Bronny is more of a role player on offense, he’s a budding star on defense. Since he entered the public spotlight three years ago, the four-star prospect has taken pride in being a relentless defender who forces turnovers and can guard up to three positions (both guards and small forward). With only a season and a half left in his high school career, Bronny is beginning to level up, which means everything else will, too, including his recruitment– Duke and Kentucky are among those who are the most interested in him. Luckily for Bronny, thriving under pressure runs in the family.

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When Will Tiger Woods Return To The PGA Tour?

As 2021 comes to a close, it’s natural to turn your attention to what 2022 could hold. For the sports world, Tiger Woods’s potential return will be a major story-line. Since Woods competed in the PNC Championship last weekend (his first tournament since he broke his right leg in multiple places in a serious car crash last February), fans have wondered if and when we’ll see the 15-time Majors champ compete again on the PGA Tour.

“I’m not at that level,” Woods said when discussing the timetable for his potential return. “It’s going to take a lot of work to get to where I feel like I can compete and be at a high level.”

While Woods had his positive moments at the PNC Championship, especially with his short game, he was clearly hampered by the lingering effects of his injuries; he notably struggled with walking the course for prolonged periods and his drives off the tee were shorter than usual.

But even with Woods’ talk about not “rushing” back to action, does that mean we should rule him out for 2022? No. There’s a great chance he’ll never again be an every tournament kind of player, but at this point of his career, Woods shouldn’t be. At this point, the only thing that Woods has yet to achieve is finally surpassing Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 Majors titles. And the good news for Woods is that there are ample opportunities for him to catch Niklaus, given that there are four Majors each year.

When considering his physical condition and how he performed at the PNC Championship, Woods could return to action at some point next summer, presumably at either the US Open in June or the Open Championship in July. By then, he will have roughly 18 months to recover from last February’s car crash, which is in-line with how long it usually takes athletes to rehab from serious injuries. At this rate, it might be a surprise it Woods doesn’t compete next year.

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Two of NYC’s Brightest Guards Introduce NIL Deals Back Home

Throughout its history, New York City has been a hotbed for innovation in art, sports, literature, entertainment and nearly every other field. With newly established NIL reform (short for name, image, and likeness) enabling youth athletes to be compensated for their acceptance of endorsements, it was only a matter of time before NYC became the stage for one of the biggest evolutions in modern sports history. And who’s leading the way? Two of the area’s most promising high school basketball stars.

Johnuel Flands and Ian Jackson, better known as “Boogie” and “Captain Jack,” are the first high school athletes in New York City history to sign NIL deals. The pair of five-star sophomores, who play for nationally top-25 ranked programs Archbishop Stepinac High School (White Plains, NY) and Cardinal Hayes (Bronx, NY), signed with the emerging social media platform, Spreadshop last week.

For the next six months, Flands and Jackson will get paid four figures a month to sell merchandise on Spreadshop and make weekly posts about the platform on social media. In recent years, high school basketball players have become viable celebrities with massive social media followings, so it was only a matter of time until they began to cash in on their fame.

But for a development of this magnitude to happen in New York City is a game-changer. Since New York is the biggest market in all sports and entertainment, these deals have the potential to significantly impact the college basketball landscape. Namely, it could help keep New York’s best players in New York. .

For several years between the late 2000s and mid-2010s, the area watched an exodus of players leave home and go to school out of state for reasons relating to a lack of opportunity and safety. Yet with more schools, both private and public, greatly improving their situations, the talent level coming out of New York City and its surrounding levels is returning to what it was two and three decades ago. And the addition of NIL’s will serve as the cherry on top.

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St. John’s Aims To Recover After Stunning Loss At The Garden

Shocking losses are an inherent part of college basketball, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hurt. As such, on Saturday, the St. John’s Red Storm dropped a heartbreaker at home against the Pittsburgh Panthers, as Pitt’s Jamarius Burton hit a game-winning floater with 0.4 seconds remaining. Even with their current 8-3 record and sixth-place standing inside the Big East conference, the Red Storm understand that, as a probable bubble team, their chances of an NCAA tournament berth could hinge on the results of any given game, making this defeat extra painful.

Despite the absence of star forward Julian Champagnie (he tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday), the Red Storm led most of the game against their former conference rival. In the first half, the Red Storm came out strong, even building a 10 point advantage midway through the half. Throughout the second half, though, the Big East competitor witnessed their offense forced to take tough shots, not score inside the paint, and get blocked at the basket. Worse, they turned the ball over 10 times in the second half.

While this is definitely a bad loss to a mediocre bad Pitt team (ranked 186th by KenPom), it could also be a learning experience for St. John’s as they enter conference play. Once Champagnie returns, the Red Storm will have a chance to prove themselves as a potential Tournament team. Over the next few weeks, the Red Storm will play three of their first four conference games at home before entering a difficult three-week stretch on the road, where trips at No. 20 UConn, No. 16 Seton Hall, and No. 9 Villanova are on tap (January 8th-29th).

There’s no doubt the Red Storm has enough talent and coaching to compete for a tournament bid, but that isn’t the expectation for this year’s team. Deep down, they probably acknowledge an extensive postseason run next March can happen next year and that this year is more about building the foundation for consistent success. Going forward, the Johnnies won’t have to settle for lower seeds and play-in games, which ultimately led to their routine early-round exits during the Chris Mullin era (2015-’19).

But the Red Storm understands business has to be handled over the next two months. Every game is a must-win game, regardless of who’s on the court because that’s how championship-contending teams treat them.