Friday, January 28, 2022

The Brooklyn Nets are still the team to beat in the East, plus what’s next for Damian Lillard in Portland?

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Good morning to everyone but especially to…

THE BROOKLYN NETS

The Eastern Conference standings may show the Chicago Bulls on top, but make no mistake: The Brooklyn Nets are undoubtedly the class of the conference. On Wednesday night, they reminded us of that, coming into the Windy City and blowing out the Bulls 138-112.

Here’s how it happened:

  • Things were tied, 71-71, early in the third quarter before Brooklyn went on a 43-8 run to put the game to bed early in the fourth quarter.
  • Kevin Durant poured in 27 points, including 17 in that decisive third period. It marked his 12th straight game with at least 25 points, tying his own franchise record.
  • James Harden had 25 points and a season-high 16 assists.
  • Rookie Day’Ron Sharpe added a career-high 20 points and Patty Mills scored 21 off the bench.

Yes, the Bulls were without defensive standout Alex Caruso, and, yes, the Bulls won the first two meetings this season. But those first two games came without Kyrie Irving in the mix, and his presence, even if Caruso had played, leads to the question every team is trying to answer: How do you defend the Nets?

Irving is a magician with the ball in his hands, constantly putting pressure on the defense with an array of dazzling dribbles and mind-boggling finishes. On Monday, Trail Blazers head coach (and former star point guard) Chauncey Billups called Irving “the most skilled player” ever at the position. Our NBA guru Brad Botkin eagerly agreed:

  • Botkin: “In the end, we’re dead smack in the middle of the most skilled point guard era in history, and Irving and Curry reside atop all the others. But then Irving even goes up a notch from there. Curry is the greatest shooter ever. Irving is the most skilled point guard. Billups is right, in my opinion.”

That’s what makes the Nets so scary. Irving had just nine points Wednesday. Instead, Durant showed that he is just about unguardable when he gets going, no matter the opponent (but especially against a Chicago team without a top-tier wing defender). Harden showed that even though his shooting has gone M.I.A., his abilities as a distributor are second-to-none when he’s at his best. Here’s what our NBA expert Sam Quinn had to say about it all:

  • Quinn: “The fully realized version of this team is only going to be more terrifying. Most defenses lack the personnel to adequately contain one superstar. No one has enough for all three.”

Wednesday night’s contest did much more than tighten the gap between these two teams to 1.5 games atop the Eastern Conference. It sent a reminder to the Bulls — and the rest of the league — of who’s boss.

Honorable mention:

  • Congratulations to Jon Lester on a heck of a career. The lefty retired Wednesday, and it begs the question: Is he a Hall of Famer?

And not such a good morning for…

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DAMIAN LILLARD AND THE PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Nearly halfway through the season, the Portland Trail Blazers — a team that has made the playoffs eight straight seasons — is barely clinging onto the final play-in spot in the Western Conference. The quest to stay there — much less improve their standing — just got a lot harder.

Damian Lillard will undergo abdominal surgery and miss six to eight weeks. The six-time All-Star hasn’t played since New Year’s Eve and has missed 11 games this season overall. Since Lillard joined the league in 2012, he has been as durable as they come, with only P.J. Tucker playing in more games.

It’s the latest blow to a team that has also been without CJ McCollum for its last 16 games and has struggled to adapt to first-year coach Chauncey Billups. Portland has the league’s second-worst defensive rating. All that leaves Portland at 16-24, tied for its worst start through 40 games since Lillard arrived. So now it’s again time for this ever-present question: Is it time to trade Lillard?

Let’s send it back to our NBA expert Sam Quinn again to break down the tricky situation:

  • Quinn: “Lillard has been adamant that he does not want to be traded from Portland to a more immediate contender, but (Anfernee) Simons’ breakout combined with the presumably higher draft pick the Blazers will receive without Lillard could make a rebuild tempting. The Blazers fired general manager Neil Olshey earlier in the season and are still seeking a permanent replacement. Reports have suggested that possible candidates for the position are interested in trading Lillard and starting a rebuild, but without the position filled on a full-time basis, it’s impossible to know what direction the Blazers will go in.”

The Trail Blazers have never reached the NBA Finals with Lillard and have made the conference finals just once: in 2019, when they got swept by the Warriors. Being good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to contend for a title is a tough spot to be stuck in, and no team knows that better than Portland.

Ranking the Super Wild Card Weekend matchups 🏈

Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ers

Getty Images

The Super Wild Card Weekend is nearly upon us, and it’s shaping up to be an awesome slate. Six games spread across three days. Of course, our NFL expert Tyler Sullivan has ranked the matchups from first to worst.

His top choice is no surprise: 49ers at Cowboys, which you can watch Saturday at 4:30 p.m. on CBS and streaming on Paramount+.

Not only is it the closest game on the betting sheet — Dallas is a three-point favorite — but it also features stars on offense (Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle) and defense (Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs, Nick Bosa, Fred Warner).

Plus, there’s the history:

  • Sullivan: “You also have two of the NFL’s more storied franchises that have a rivalry that goes back to the 1970s. Dallas had three playoff wins (including two NFC Championship victories) in the early ’70s, while the 49ers were able to come away with a last-second win over the Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship thanks to Dwight Clark hauling in ‘The Catch’ from Joe Montana. Of course, the 1990s sparked the rivalry back up as they met numerous times in the NFC Championship and volleyed Super Bowl titles for half the decade. Now, we’ll get the latest chapter in this historic rivalry.”

How Barry Bonds (and others) can still get into the Baseball Hall of Fame, even if it isn’t this year ⚾

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Getty Images

It’s the last year on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling and Sammy Sosa, and all four former stars are trending to come up short of the required 75% of the vote to be inducted.

So, that’s it, right? The home run king — and three of his contemporaries — are going to miss out on Cooperstown, right?

Not quite. As MLB expert Matt Snyder explains, there is one more option:

  • Via the Hall of Fame website: The Today’s Game Committee (“The Committee”) shall refer to the electorate that considers retired Major League Baseball players no longer eligible for election by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA), along with managers, umpires and executives, whose greatest contributions to the game were realized from the 1988-2016 era.

“The Committee” will consist of 16 people, and a candidate needs 12 votes for induction. If the past is any indication, Bonds and those in similar positions may have a good shot.

  • Snyder: “It was an awful quick turnaround for players like Lee Smith, Jack Morris, Alan Trammell and Harold Baines between falling off the BBWAA ballot and then getting into the Hall of Fame via these committees. Through this lens, it seems Bonds, Clemens and Schilling have a great chance to get on it right off the bat in December if they don’t get 75 percent of the votes this January.”

What we’re watching Thursday 📺

🏀 No. 16 Ohio State at No. 13 Wisconsin, 7 p.m. on ESPN2

🏀 Warriors at Bucks, 7:30 p.m. on TNT

🏀 BYU at No. 2 Gonzaga, 11 p.m. on ESPN2

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