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NHL roundup: Lightning overwhelm Devils



NHL roundup: Lightning overwhelm Devils

Tampa Bay blitzed visiting New Jersey for the second time in less than a month as four different forwards scored on four of the first seven shots in the Lightning’s 5-2 win over the Devils on Sunday.

Nov 25, 2018; Tampa, FL, USA;Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point (21) shoots the puck as New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider (35) defends during the first period at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Lightning exploded Friday for three goals in the first 10 minutes of a 4-2 home win over the Chicago Blackhawks, and they bettered that output Sunday, scoring four times in the opening 11:25 against Devils goalie Cory Schneider.

Tampa Bay won the previous meeting against the Devils on Oct. 30 in an 8-3 rout — one of two games this season when the Lightning registered eight goals. On Sunday, Brayden Point scored twice, and Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson and Cedric Paquette also had goals for the Lightning, who won their third straight.

Point added an assist for a three-point game, Nikita Kucherov had two assists, and goalie Louis Domingue made 33 saves. Jesper Bratt and Stefan Noesen scored for New Jersey.

Flames 6, Coyotes 1

Defenseman Noah Hanifin scored his first two goals of the season, Mark Jankowski added two goals, and Calgary had three short-handed tallies in a win over Arizona in Glendale, Ariz.

Sean Monahan scored his 13th goal of the year, TJ Brodie had a goal and an assist and Mike Smith made 28 saves for Calgary. Johnny Gaudreau and Mark Giordano each had an assist, giving both 19 for the Flames this season.

Clayton Keller scored an unassisted goal at 13:44 of the third period for the Coyotes, who have lost four in a row and eight of 10. They lost the final four games of a five-game homestand.

Predators 5, Ducks 2

Austin Watson recorded his first career hat trick as Nashville defeated visiting Anaheim, winning its sixth straight game at home and fourth in the past five games overall.

Nick Bonino had a goal and an assist, Colton Sissons and Roman Josi had two assists each, and Pekka Rinne made 17 saves for the Predators.

Adam Henrique and Ondrej Kase scored for the Ducks, who opened a five-game road trip after playing 11 of the previous 13 games at home. John Gibson made 28 saves.

Kings 5, Oilers 2

Anze Kopitar scored the game-winning goal to cap a three-point outing, and Dustin Brown collected a hat trick as host Los Angeles snapped a two-game losing skid by beating Edmonton.

Slideshow (9 Images)

With the score tied 2-2 after two periods, Derek Forbort made a great pass to spring Kopitar on a breakaway, and the Kings captain snapped a blocker-side shot into the net at the 4:27 mark of the third period for his seventh goal of the season.

Cal Petersen, who made 32 saves, held strong between the pipes the rest of the way for the Kings — who sit last in the league — before Brown and Matt Luff iced the affair with empty-net goals into final minute. Alex Chiasson scored twice for the Oilers, who got 27 saves from Cam Talbot.

—Field Level Media

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NBA Power Rankings special edition




NBA Power Rankings special edition

With All-Star Weekend in the books, it’s time to look at which NBA Finals contenders are in the driver’s seat for home-court advantage, which teams are still fighting for a playoff spot and which struggling clubs already have eyes on the draft.

Our panel (ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz, Tim MacMahon and Andre’ Snellings, The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears and FiveThirtyEight’s Chris Herring) ranks all 30 teams from top to bottom, taking stock of which teams are looking most like title contenders. For reference, we’ve included FiveThirtyEight’s NBA projections, while turning to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index for the latest draft lottery odds.

Previous rankings: Week 18 | 17 | 16 | 15 | 14 | 13 | 12 | 11 | 10 | 9 | 8 | 7 | 6 | 5 | 4 | 3 | 2 | 1 | Training camp | Free agency

The NBA Finals contenders

1. Golden State Warriors
Record: 41-16 (1st in West)

The Nuggets’ staff might have coached in the All-Star Game, but the Warriors own the best record in the Western Conference. Keep an eye Golden State and Denver as they battle it out for the top seed in the conference: The Warriors and Nuggets split a pair of games in Denver, while Golden State hosts the final two contests that could decide home-court advantage throughout the West playoffs. — Spears

2. Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 43-14 (1st in East)

With the best record in basketball, Milwaukee is sitting pretty and should be concerned merely about maximizing its playoff potential. The trade to secure floor-spacer Nikola Mirotic, who will make his Bucks’ debut after the break, was seemingly a wise move in that direction. — Herring

3. Toronto Raptors
Record: 43-16 (2nd in East)

The Raptors have been one of the league’s most consistent winners this season, even with the load management of Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry‘s missed games. Now they’re without Fred VanVleet, a vital member of their rotation, for a few weeks. The pressing question down the stretch for the Raps: Can this high-IQ group that has endured sporadic absences find the cohesiveness necessary to win an Eastern Conference title? — Arnovitz

4. Oklahoma City Thunder
Record: 37-20 (3rd in West)

The Thunder reached the All-Star break in third place out West, four games behind the Warriors. The Thunder have positioned themselves as a legitimate contender, built on the strength of a top-five defensive efficiency and two MVP-caliber team leaders, Russell Westbrook and Paul George. If defense and superstars win championships, a healthy Thunder squad is one that no one will want to face in the playoffs. –– Snellings

5. Denver Nuggets
Record: 39-18 (2nd in West)

The Nuggets reached the break with the second-best record out West, despite injuries that have seen them miss a combined 82 games from their starting five. Nikola Jokic has turned in an MVP-caliber campaign thus far, ranking third in the NBA with a Real Plus-Minus of 6.46 that has led the Nuggets to the fourth-best offensive efficiency in the league. — Snellings

6. Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 37-21 (T-4th in East)

With the trades for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, the Sixers let it be known to the world that their aspiration this season is nothing less than the NBA Finals. If the first four games and 73 minutes their new starting lineup has played together is any indication, they have a strong case to be a favorite in the East. The Philly Phive has an eye-popping net rating of plus-24.6 points per 100 possessions. — Arnovitz

7. Boston Celtics
Record: 37-21 (T-4th in East)

The Celtics are currently tied for fourth in the East with the 76ers, a game behind the Pacers. They are likely too far behind to catch the first-place Bucks or second-place Raptors, so their most likely scenario has them challenging for the third seed. However, they are widely considered to have one of the most talented rosters and own the third-best scoring margin (plus-6.4) in the NBA. Perhaps the best news for the Celtics is the recent play of Gordon Hayward, who has averaged 21.0 points (63.3 shooting), 4.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds during the three games leading into the break and looks like he is approaching full strength for the first time this season. –– Snellings

8. Houston Rockets
Record: 33-24 (5th in West)

James Harden is working hard to make history. Can he keep that up and have enough gas left to go deep in the playoffs? Can 33-year-old Chris Paul stay healthy and find his superstar form again? Paul also has to figure out how to best fit with Harden being so ball-dominant. One good sign: Paul is plus-52 in the past four games despite not shooting well (39 assists, five turnovers). — MacMahon

Don’t forget about us

9. Portland Trail Blazers
Record: 34-23 (4th in West)

The Blazers enter the post-All-Star break in a precarious position. Portland will have to be nearly perfect to catch up to Golden State, Denver or Oklahoma City in the top three West playoff spots. The Blazers currently own the fourth seed, which comes with home court in the first round of the playoffs. Meanwhile, Portland has four teams breathing down their necks trying to take it away. — Spears

10. Indiana Pacers
Record: 38-20 (3rd in East)

Credit to Indiana, which has gone 13-9 without injured All-Star Victor Oladipo this season after posting an 0-7 mark in games without him in 2017-18. As a third-place team, the Pacers should still be a lock to make the playoffs in the East, even without their best player. But it’d be a huge accomplishment to somehow hold on to home-court advantage. — Herring

11. Utah Jazz
Record: 32-25 (6th in West)

Ricky Rubio maintained his professionalism — and sense of humor — as the Jazz dangled him in an attempt to upgrade with Mike Conley. Utah probably needs Rubio, a free agent this summer, at his best to advance past the first round for the third straight year. The Jazz also need Dante Exum to come back strong after a long absence due to a left ankle sprain. — MacMahon

12. San Antonio Spurs
Record: 33-26 (7th in West)

Can DeMar DeRozan get his groove back? His production and efficiency have slipped significantly since the calendar flipped to 2019, as he has dealt with fatigue and nagging injuries. The Spurs look like a good bet to extend their playoff streak to record-tying 22 years. The question is whether Spurs can do any damage once they get there. — MacMahon

California dreamin’

13. Los Angeles Lakers
Record: 28-29 (10th in West)

LeBron James returned more than two weeks ago, but the Lakers still find themselves slotted at No. 10 in the Western Conference playoff race. Missing the postseason would be embarrassing for the Lakers, even with the tempered expectations set at the start of the season. Qualifying won’t be easy, as the upstart Kings have shown no signs of tailing off, and the resilient and transitional Clippers still able to play .500 ball or better, irrespective of who’s on the roster. — Arnovitz

14. LA Clippers
Record: 32-27 (8th in West)

The Clippers won’t say it aloud, but most within the front office wouldn’t mind being edged out at the finish line for a playoff spot, thus allowing them to retain their first-round draft pick this June. In the meantime, the top priority is the continuing development of rookie point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The Clips would love to be able to enter free-agency pitches not only with cap space, but evidence that Gilgeous-Alexander is a point guard with the skills to lead an elite, contending team. –– Arnovitz

15. Sacramento Kings
Record: 30-27 (9th in West)

Do the Kings finally have enough to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006? Adding quality veteran forward Harrison Barnes as a starter and veteran guard Alec Burks off the bench sure showed the club is going for it this season. De’Aaron Fox has been outstanding in his second year at point guard, and perhaps it’s time for the Kings to take the training wheels off talented forward Marvin Bagley III and let him start. — Spears

Chasing the playoffs

16. Brooklyn Nets
Record: 30-29 (6th in East)

It’s ironic that in a season the Nets finally own their first-round draft pick, they’re playing their way into the postseason — but Brooklyn will gladly take a pick in the teens in exchange for the playoff berth. Even with the Nets’ recent slide, no team works harder, gets more out of its personnel and is better coached than Brooklyn. The gritty supporting cast has been a revelation, but the Nets’ postseason hopes will rest in large part on the play of D’Angelo Russell, who has led the team in scoring in each of the past nine games. — Arnovitz

17. Detroit Pistons
Record: 26-30 (T-8th in East)

Detroit won five of its last seven games before the break and enters the second half of the season in a tie for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Pistons retooled their roster some, hoping to find a bit more support for Blake Griffin, who has been great, but at times looked overburdened on offense because of the team’s lack of ball handlers. At this point, with just one playoff appearance in the previous nine seasons, Detroit will take some mid-April basketball anyway it can get it. — Herring

18. Charlotte Hornets
Record: 27-30 (7th in East)

The Hornets were gracious hosts for All-Star Weekend, but their fans are more worried about getting back to the postseason. Charlotte, however, made no significant move at the trade deadline to help its cause. The Hornets have tough competition for the final two playoff spots with Detroit, Miami and Orlando. — Spears

19. Minnesota Timberwolves
Record: 27-30 (11th in West)

The Timberwolves desperately need to pick up some wins if they hope to make the postseason for the second year in a row. Minnesota is currently four games out of the playoff race behind the Clippers. Success would certainly help the cause for interim head coach Ryan Saunders in his hopes to be permanent. Consistent elite play from forward Andrew Wiggins to complement All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns would help, too. — Spears

20. Orlando Magic
Record: 27-32 (10th in East)

The Magic are having a season that exceeds expectations across the board. The team was expected to be in full rebuild mode, but instead the strong play of first-time All-Star Nikola Vucevic has them entering the break a half game out of the playoffs and on a five-game winning streak. In addition, the deadline deal to bring in 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz gives the Magic three top-five draft picks from the past two drafts (along with Mo Bamba and Jonathan Isaac) to develop as a potential future core. — Snellings

21. Miami Heat
Record: 26-30 (T-8th in East)

The Heat limped into the All-Star break, having lost six of their past eight games to fall into a tie for the last playoff spot. They remain one of four teams within a game of each other for seeds 7 through 10, though, and have a veteran-laden team that would like to send legend Dwyane Wade into retirement with a playoff berth. — Snellings

22. Washington Wizards
Record: 24-34 (11th in East)

With the franchise clearly being built around Bradley Beal at this point, the next two months should be about establishing which teammates fit best alongside him for the coming years, and doing everything you can to keep Beal healthy for next season. Washington sits three games out of the No. 8 seed, so a late-season charge isn’t out of the question, either. — Herring

So, when’s the lottery?

23. Dallas Mavericks
Record: 26-31 (12th in West)

Rookie sensation Luka Doncic will be pushed to his limits, as he has as much responsibility on his shoulders the rest of the season as anyone but a couple recent MVPs. Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, Jalen Brunson get extended auditions to prove they’re good fits as role players who complement the kid. — MacMahon

24. New Orleans Pelicans
Record: 26-33 (13th in West)

The rest of the season is about managing the Anthony Davis dumpster fire and figuring out who will be the Pelicans’ point man in trade discussions this summer. As coach Alvin Gentry does his best to keep the Pelicans focused amid all the distractions, the league office might need to reconsider whether the franchise has the right to act in its own best interest by putting Davis on the shelf for the rest of the season. — MacMahon

25. Atlanta Hawks
Record: 19-39 (12th in East)

There are some who would argue that the Hawks are doing themselves a disservice by winning games and decreasing their odds in the Zion Williamson sweepstakes. But Atlanta will happily take the incremental progress of its young core — Trae Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter most notably — and the cultural foundation being laid down by head coach Lloyd Pierce. It’s an inexperienced group that may still lose a ton of games down the stretch, but the Hawks seem to have recused themselves from the 2019 Tankathon. — Arnovitz

26. Memphis Grizzlies
Record: 23-36 (14th in West)

Hey, hey, let’s convey! Not quite an inspiring rally cry, but the Grizzlies’ primary goal is to get rid of the top-eight protected pick they owe the Celtics now, not when it’s top-six protected next year or unprotected in 2021. Mike Conley will surely get shopped again this summer, but he’s helping mentor Jaren Jackson Jr. to be Memphis’ future face of the franchise. — MacMahon

27. Chicago Bulls
Record: 14-44 (14th in East)

The chief curiosity for Chicago heading into the second half should be seeing how Otto Porter Jr. continues to fit alongside Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. The early results have been more than encouraging: In their 110 minutes as a trio, Chicago has outscored opponents by 14 points per 100 possessions. Seeing what that group does once Wendell Carter Jr. returns should be somewhat instructive for next year. — Herring

28. Cleveland Cavaliers
Record: 12-46 (14th in East)

Cleveland has a handful of things to monitor once it resumes play. Can Cedi Osman, who has averaged 20 points per game over the past month or so, become a consistent second scorer going forward? Can Kevin Love, now healthy again, restore his value as a franchise-caliber player? (If not as a legitimate centerpiece, then as trade asset.) But the most important question will come in mid-May, when the Cavs have a chance to win the lottery. — Herring

29. Phoenix Suns
Record: 11-48 (Last in West)

As bad as things seem to be for the Suns, the good news is there finally seems to be some stability. There is no potential change in head coach, general manager or even arena on the horizon and they finally have a point guard, Tyler Johnson. Don’t be surprised if the Suns play the role of spoiler the rest of the regular season. Foes will take the Suns lightly, but with young stars Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton and other budding talent, they can be competitive. — Spears

30. New York Knicks
Record: 11-47 (Last in East)

The Knicks had parlayed an impressive 18-game losing streak into the worst record in the NBA before winning the last pre-break game to move a half-game ahead of the Suns. However, under the new draft lottery rules, the teams with the three worst records share the same chance at the No. 1 overall pick. The Knicks are three full games behind the Bulls for the fourth-worst record in the league, so they have some wiggle room while continuing their season-long youth movement without fear of lowering their lottery odds. — Snellings

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NBA All-Star 2019 – The most important things we saw at All-Star Weekend




NBA All-Star 2019 - The most important things we saw at All-Star Weekend

All-Star Weekend had it all: a million Giannis dunks, a broken replica airplane, all the Currys, and many more highlight moments. Here are the most important things our team of experts saw in Charlotte, North Carolina:

Dirk and D-Wade’s last All-Star dance

Dirk Nowitzki made sure that commissioner Adam Silver’s decision to bring him and Dwyane Wade to Charlotte as special roster additions ended up more celebration than just ceremony. Nowitzki checked in for Team Giannis with less than a minute to go in the first quarter and stroked back-to-back 3s — one from 29 feet, one from 33 feet — before the horn sounded.

Wade started the second half for Team LeBron alongside LeBron James and threw a vintage alley-oop off the backboard for James to finish with a slam to bring back some Miami memories for the pair that won two rings together. Before the fourth quarter, Nowitzki and Wade were honored at center court and presented with framed All-Star jerseys by the team captains.

“The game is in good hands so it’s easy to walk away right now,” Wade said.

— Dave McMenamin



LeBron James lobs one up to Dwyane Wade, then Wade returns the favor off the backboard for a big LeBron slam.

LeBron’s team-building exercise

Nine years ago, LeBron James chose to leave Cleveland and team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the shores of Biscayne Bay, creating a team that won two championships and reached four straight NBA Finals. This summer, James needs to find someone to do what he did back then: choose to come play with him and turn his team into a championship contender.

He needs to find his next Dwyane Wade.

That was what made this weekend so compelling. James drafted a team littered with players who have been linked to playing alongside him — either joining his Lakers as free agents this summer or via trade (in the case of Anthony Davis, as recently as within the past two weeks).

By virtue of his selections, the name Team LeBron was quickly, and sarcastically, replaced by “Team Tampering.”

— Tim Bontemps

The Greek Freak rises

One of the defining moments of the game came with 6:42 in the second quarter when Stephen Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo connected for a gorgeous alley-oop.

With Curry leading a two-on-one fast break, the two-time MVP bounced a high pass to Antetokounmpo over Kevin Durant‘s head as the Milwaukee Bucks‘ young star threw down a dunk that left the Charlotte crowd in awe. For Curry, it was just another special moment in a weekend filled with them on a super-sized bounce pass that the All-Star Game had never seen before.

— Nick Friedell



Take a look at Giannis Antetokounmpo’s All-Star alley-oop dunk from Steph Curry’s bounce pass in super slow motion.

A dunk contest in need of some tweaks

There’s no way to “fix” the NBA’s dunk contest, because the fundamental problem is reality competing against the memory of past years where the missed dunks and failed props have faded, leaving only the best dunks as a legacy. Nonetheless, two small tweaks could produce a more satisfying dunk contest.

1. Carry first-round scores forward

One of the most frustrating parts of the dunk contest is that the best dunks — including the very best of Saturday night, Hamidou Diallo scaling Mt. Shaq — don’t count toward the final result because first-round scores aren’t carried forward to the final round. That makes no sense.

When you praise Vince Carter‘s historic 2000 dunk contest, odds are you’re remembering two of his first-round dunks (a 360 windmill that prompted TNT commentator Kenny Smith to yell “Let’s go home!” and a between-the-legs dunk off a bounce pass by then-teammate Tracy McGrady that Carter capped with his famous point to the sky) rather than his final dunk, a two-hander from just inside the free-throw line that earned his lowest score all night (48).

So why shouldn’t Diallo’s perfect 50 have counted toward winning the actual competition? At a minimum, we should carry scores from the first round over to the final. Better yet, I’d suggest letting all four dunkers have three or four dunks and picking the winner among them rather than having two separate rounds.

2. Eliminate the minimum score

More aggressive adjustments to the scoring have been suggested, but in the name of simplicity I think an easy tweak would be taking out the minimum score of 6 per judge. That doesn’t punish players harshly enough for missing dunks, since they’ll still score at least a 30 (and both Miles Bridges and Dennis Smith Jr. scored better than that when they ran out of attempts Saturday night).

Additionally, utilizing all 11 scores from 0-10 would give judges more room to properly reward the very best dunks. When the scores are condensed, there’s little variation. Half of the 10 completed dunks Saturday scored a 50. Back in the 1980s, a score of 50 was rare. In their famous 1985 dunk contest, Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins received a combined three 50s out of 18 dunks in the three-round format used at the time. Making 50s less common will also make them more meaningful.

— Kevin Pelton



Hamidou Diallo and Dennis Smith Jr. each took turns dunking over guests like Shaq and J. Cole, but Diallo comes out victorious.

Anthony Davis’ stunning news conference

When All-Star media day began Saturday morning, it was unclear if Davis would even show up.

The New Orleans Pelicans star’s quote isn’t exactly a stellar one in the best of times — and this was far from the best of times. Davis’ trade request from before the trade deadline, and the ensuing fallout from it, still hung over the franchise. Davis had left New Orleans’ final game before the All-Star break before it ended to get an MRI on his shoulder. His coach, Alvin Gentry, stormed off after his postgame interview when he was asked a second time about Davis leaving. Friday afternoon, New Orleans fired its general manager, Dell Demps.

All of it made what happened after Davis did, in fact, come to the podium all the more amazing to witness. Not only did he speak about everything that had happened over the past few weeks, he did so openly and honestly. He refuted the one major roadblock to his going to the Boston Celtics — the team with the most assets to trade for him — by saying they were, in fact, on his list of preferred teams. He spoke openly of what he liked about the New York Knicks. He said he would become a free agent in 2020 no matter where he played.

In short, he answered just about every possible question people have wanted to ask him since this whole saga began.

— Bontemps



Anthony Davis speaks about his desire to play and explains that he never said the Celtics weren’t on his list of teams that he wanted to be traded to.

Kyle Kuzma, the late-first round Rising Star

Looking at the Rising Stars rosters before tipoff was a great reminder of how imperfect the science is of projecting the NBA draft. Watching the game’s MVP Kyle Kuzma throw down windmills and hit step-back 3-pointers was easily the most vivid example of that. Kuzma elected to redshirt his freshman year in college and proceeded to play only eight minutes per game his second. In, his third year at Utah, already 20 years old, he made just 13 3-pointers in 35 games, hitting 26.5 percent of his attempts, while converting 60 percent from the free throw line.

Mostly a streaky spot-up shooter in college, not many predicted Kuzma, the No. 27 overall pick in 2017, would emerge as one of the more skilled power forwards in the NBA almost from day one. Watching him get into his pull-up jumpers with the fluidity of a guard in Charlotte again reminded us of the importance of keeping an open mind about young players, even 22-year-olds coming out of college.

— Jonathan Givony



Kyle Kuzma represents the U.S. and Los Angeles Lakers proudly by dropping 35 points and earning the MVP award of the Rising Stars game.

Get to know Deni Avdija

The 18-year-old Israeli forward was named MVP of the fifth annual Basketball Without Borders Global Camp, held in conjunction with All-Star Weekend. More than two dozen players from the camp, which features top international prospects 18 and under, have gone on to play in the NBA. Expect Avdija to soon join them. He’s currently seventh in ESPN’s mock draft for 2020 and strengthened his résumé by showing off comfortable NBA 3-point range while running point guard for his team at 6-foot-9.

Inevitably, Avdija’s combination of size and skill has led NBA scouts to compare him to Rookie of the Year favorite Luka Doncic. Avdija doesn’t have the same kind of high-level club success, having played sparingly for Maccabi Tel Aviv in EuroLeague action. But if Avdija can expand his role in 2019-20 and continues to develop his game, he’ll be an interesting option for teams in the top half of the lottery.

— Pelton

The Curry brothers’ big bet

Stephen and Seth Curry had a sizable wager on the line that carried ramifications throughout the remainder of their careers.

“Family’s obviously big for us and like our support,” Stephen said Saturday ahead of the 3-point contest. “So kind of wanted to weave that into the bet, so whoever loses has to pick up the tab for all the tickets any time we play against each other for the rest of our careers. Which, the stakes are high considering how many people show up for our games.”

Pay up, Seth.

— Friedell



Steph Curry clarifies the terms of his bet with brother Seth and says he will probably make Seth pay up on their 3-point contest wager.

Where was the buzz?

There are points during every All-Star Weekend when the atmosphere inside the arena isn’t great. It is, after all, a series of meaningless exhibitions played in front of a crowd filled with many corporate suits. But the atmosphere inside Charlotte’s Spectrum Center throughout this weekend was particularly lacking in energy and enthusiasm.

Some of that was aided by what happened on the court. The dunk contest — which is supposed to be Saturday night’s signature event — was marred by strange grading and several dunk attempts that took multiple attempts to pull off (or, in a couple of instances, failed to work at all).

Then came Sunday’s All-Star Game, which was virtually void of emotion or energy for large stretches. Sure, there were a few nice moments — like when LeBron James caught an alley-oop from Dwyane Wade, or when Dirk Nowitzki hit a pair of 3-pointers to end the first quarter, or when hometown hero Stephen Curry pulled off a 4-point play when he was fouled while making a 3-pointer by Warriors teammate Klay Thompson.

For large stretches of the game, though, you could hear a pin drop. That wasn’t helped by the fact that the celebrities ringing the court were not exactly A-listers — including Guy Fieri being shown midway through the first quarter in an attempt to fire up the crowd.

The one person who could’ve gotten everyone excited — Hornets owner Michael Jordan — was nowhere to be seen. Outside of a 30-second interaction on the court in a mid-quarter break in the second half to celebrate next year’s All-Star Game being in Chicago (including Jordan having to shake hands with Bulls president Michael Reinsdorf, the son of owner Jerry), Jordan wasn’t part of the game Sunday in any way — despite this being something NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Jordan worked very hard to make happen.

It was an underwhelming end to an underwhelming weekend — one the atmosphere in the arena did little to help.

— Bontemps

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Jurgen Klopp needs to rule with his head and focus on the Premier League, not Bayern




Jurgen Klopp needs to rule with his head and focus on the Premier League, not Bayern

The trick is getting head and heart to coexist in the right proportion, at the right time, and a great manager knows when to turn the dial toward the “heart” end.

It’s how Liverpool came back from 3-0 down in a Champions League final, remember? You loosen the reins, go for it and believe in the improbable. To paraphrase “Risky Business,” it gives you freedom, freedom brings opportunity, opportunity makes your future…

But there are times when you need it turned back toward the “head” end. Knockout European football is jiu-jitsu as much as anything else and Jurgen Klopp, who has won 12 of 15 two-legged knockouts, knows this as well as anyone.

He won’t admit it in so many words — managers are specifically conditioned not to do this — but there’s a bigger picture to consider as Liverpool host Bayern Munich in the first leg of their Round of 16 clash.

As important as the Champions League may be, both financially and in terms of prestige, his club are poised to do something they haven’t managed to do in 29 years: become English champions. As droughts go, this one is particularly stinging because when Liverpool last won it back in 1989-90, no English club had won it more times. Since then, Manchester United have passed their 18 league titles — or, as Sir Alex Ferguson famously said, “knocked them off their f—–g perch” — and no club in a major European league, among those who have won more than 10 league titles, has gone as long between titles.

In that sense, Klopp’s head has a very clear message and one that his heart doesn’t like very much: the Premier League must come first.

You can imagine heart and head duking it out over the past 10 days during the club’s warm-weather training in Marbella. The logic speaks volumes. Next Sunday, Liverpool travel to Old Trafford to face Manchester United. If they can escape unscathed, they will nose in front of Manchester City (who have played one more match) by either a point or three points. Do that and you control your destiny because the fixture list is kind. Every single away game after that is against a side from the bottom half of the table, except for Everton. And every single home game, bar Chelsea and Tottenham, is against a team from outside the top six.

It’s not a dead cert, by any means — Liverpool learned the hard way, when Steven Gerrard slipped in 2013-14, that there is no certainty in football — but at least a chance at controlling your own destiny.

There’s another factor pointing you toward the league: Your starting central defence may well be made up of two guys (Joel Matip and Fabinho) who, between them, have played the position less than a dozen times in the past 12 months. Joe Gomez is injured. Virgil Van Dijk is suspended. Dejan Lovren hasn’t played in six weeks, missed the training camp and is still nursing his injured hamstring. You don’t want to risk his health because you’ll need him down the stretch, as Gomez might not be back until April.

Plus, you know Manchester City are in the opposite boat. They have a League Cup final to play, they’re through to the quarterfinal of the FA Cup and their Champions League opponents aren’t Bayern but Schalke, who sit 14th in the Bundesliga and have won just once in 2019. That’s where your head tells you: Let them deal with the fixture congestion of advancing in Europe and two domestic cups.

You can hear your head loud and clear. But thrumming away inside you is your heart, and its message is different. Your heart reminds you that many thought you were doomed against City last year, when you were so depleted that you had to call on somebody named Conor Masterson to sit on the bench just so you could field an 18-man squad. And you won home and away, 5-1 on aggregate.

Plus, this is Bayern. Not that long ago, you knocked them off their perch and made your name in world football. Like the cool clique in school, they’re the guys who take it for granted that everyone in German football wants to hang with them. Not you; you turned them down before and you may be asked to do it again. It was sweet then and it would be sweeter still now.

And then there’s maybe the greatest pull of all. Tuesday night, you’ll hear them, even from the bowels of Anfield, even before you walk past the “This is Anfield” sign. You’ll see the Kop moving as one, the wall of sound will hit you, the faces will, for a moment, become distinct before melting back into the red. They too are balancing their hearts and their heads but in that moment, the former will rule. And you’ll be swept up in it. You always are.

Klopp knows his team have lost their last five European games away from Anfield, conceding 12 goals in the process. The question isn’t whether to field an under-strength side and save his big hitters for Manchester United — he won’t do that — but how much mental and emotional energy to expend on this clash.

And so, maybe, you treat this a “free hit.” If you get something from it, you can use that momentum and self-belief as fuel against United. If you come up short, it won’t derail your season.

Tomorrow night, Klopp should go with the head, tempered by the right amount of heart. The trick for him is getting the balance right while keeping his eyes on the prize: The one that has been missing since before the vast majority of his squad, and many of the fans, were even born.

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