Dakarai Tucker (Utes #14) drills 3-pointer with 40 seconds left to give Utes 63-60 lead.

Dakarai Tucker (Utes #14) drills 3-pointer with 40 seconds left to give Utes 63-60 lead.

The Washington Huskies pushed Utah to the edge, overcoming a 12 point first half deficit, but the Utes hold out late and beat UW 67-61 in the first game of the opening round of the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament.

This win locks up Utah’s second round matchup against No. 1 seed Arizona tomorrow.

The turning point and play-of-the-game both came on a clutch 3-point basket made by Dakarai Tucker with 40 seconds left to give the Utes a 63-60 lead over UW.  After that, Utah hit four free throws to Washington’s one.

Utah’s player of the game was undoubtedly Delon Wright who recorded 15 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three steals and 2 blocks.

The Utes led early, getting out to a 30-18 lead with 4:37 remaining in the first half.

That lead was chipped away at by the Huskies behind 16 points off the bench from Darin Johnson, who led all scorers, until Washington eventually took a 41-40 lead with 11:34 remaining on a Johnson layup.

It was back and forth from that point until eventually the game was tied 60-60 with just over a minute remaining.

And thus begins another year’s NFL Playoffs.

Considering the defending champions (Baltimore Ravens) and defending NFC No. 1 seed (Atlanta Falcons) both missed the playoffs, this postseason presents big change opportunities. Saturday’s match-ups feature prime examples of such opportunities.

Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts – Saturday Jan. 4 (4:35 PM ET)

Chiefs vs ColtsThe No. 4 vs No. 5 seed match-up may be the closest game to call. It’s no surprise then to discover a litany of parallels between the teams.

Both teams feature a starting QB that was the No. 1 overall draft pick, Alex Smith from the 2005 draft and Andrew Luck from the 2012 draft.

Both the Colts and Chiefs went from last place in the NFL to securing a wildcard spot the following year, the Colts from 2012 to 2013 and the Chiefs from 2013 to this current season.

Thanks, in part, to a disastrous AFC South Division, the Colts seemingly coasted to the division title. Such was the not the case for the Chiefs’ AFC West, which features the No. 1 seed Broncos and both the Wildcard teams (Chiefs and Chargers respectively).

Terrible division aside, the Colts certainly boasted perhaps the most impressive out-of-division record, having beaten the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos and the Chiefs themselves. In fact, the Colts held the Chiefs to a season-low seven points.

Arguments may be made that the Chiefs had already locked up a playoff spot by that point and lacked luster. However, I believe the Colts, and more specifically Andrew Luck, have proven themselves true contenders.

Ultimately this game will come down to defense and which team can win the turnover battle.

Prediction: Chiefs win 27-24.chiefs

New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles – Saturday Jan. 4th (8:10 PM ET)

Saints vs Eagles

The second Saturday game brings a sense of resurrection.

In the Saints’ case, this comes with the reinstatement of previously suspended Head Coach Sean Payton. Payton’s absence was almost unanimously understood to be the cause of the Saints’ poor season in 2012-13.

The postseason resurrection of the Philadelphia Eagles is two-fold. One, the hiring of the former Oregon Ducks’ Head Coach Chip Kelly and two, the Dallas Cowboys’ narrow throat.

The most interesting aspect of this match-up, in my opinion, is that each team’s offensive strength is the other’s defensive weakness. The Eagles own the No. 1 rushing attack in the NFL while the Saints’ rush defense ranks 19th. The Saints are the No. 2 passing team in the NFL while the Eagles rank dead last in pass defense.

I tend to give the edge to the team with the better run game in a cold atmosphere, which Philly will definitely provide. However, Drew Brees and Co. are hungry and I cannot see an NFC “Least” team with a first year starter taking down the Saints.

Prediction: Saints win 31-24 Saints

NBA: Finals-San Antonio Spurs at Miami Heat

NBA: Finals-San Antonio Spurs at Miami Heat (Photo credit: completely deck)

 

There are moments in sports that prove larger than life. For the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat that moment approaches in San Antonio, Texas.

 

After two games in Miami the Spurs and Heat have each drawn blood and drawn even.

 

Many now see this series as a “best-of-five” situation, where perhaps they should see it as a “best-of-the-next-three,” and here’s why: the winner of the three-game series in San Antonio will win the championship.

 

Let’s just take a look at the three possible scenarios at stake – either team sweeps, the Spurs win two of three, or the Heat win two of three.

 

The first scenario is obvious and needs no expounding upon. If either team sweeps the San Antonio series they will have won the Finals series 4-1. What may not be obvious is the answer to the question, “which team has a better chance at accomplishing said task?”

 

It may be tempting to give the Spurs the benefit of the doubt, seeing as it is their home court and, surely, the thought of not having to return to Miami for either Game 6 or 7 must give quite a lot of motivation. History, however, would lean towards Miami.

 

Since forming the Miami “Big Three,” the Heat have lost Game 1 four times (including this series). They did not lose another game in any of those three prior series, including the Thunder Finals series last season. It’s highly unlikely that that trend should continue, however.

 

So which, then, of the other possible scenarios is more likely to occur? – San Antonio or Miami winning two of three games?

 

To answer this, one must determine which team is more likely to win Game 3.

 

Miami will enter Game 3 with an anticipated higher confidence. The fact that Tim Duncan didn’t play a minute of the 4th quarter and the rest of the Spurs starters hit the bench with 7:43 remaining in the game could have done nothing but dampen the confidence level of San Antonio.

 

Hope is not lost, though, for Spurs fans. The best coach in the NBA is at the helm of the Spurs in Gregg Popovich and, as many coaches will agree, it is easier to make adjustments and thus improve after a loss than a win. Popovich will have a big task in front of him as turnovers were the Spurs downfall and forcing turnovers the Heat’s biggest strength. If the Miami Heat can continue to pressure the Spurs into turning the ball over with their stifling defense, the Spurs may have no chance at victory apart from stellar defense of their own and lights-out shooting from behind the arch.

 

Game 3 is also a must-win for the Spurs for the fact that Miami is 11-0 following a loss. If Miami wins Game 3 and follows their trend of no-back-to-back losses, the Spurs cannot make up the difference.

 

If San Antonio wins Game 3, and split Games 4 and 5 with the Heat, they force Miami’s back to the wall and force them to win Games 6 and 7, a feat that is not impossible by any stretch but certainly daunting.

 

If Miami wins two of the three games in San Antonio, you can all but kiss the Spurs’ chances at a fifth title goodbye.

 

 

 

***  Historical Tidbits  ***

 

In all four of the Spurs’ prior championship victories, they had home court advantage in the best-of-seven series.

 

Only once have the Spurs split the first two games 1-1 in the Finals – against the Nets in 2003. Spurs won in 6.

 

Miami’s “Big 3” is 8-3 in Game 3’s

In the last seven Finals series when started 1-1, the team that won the next best-of-three-games series won the title six  times.

 

 

 

Much to the surprise of most, the Chicago Bulls won Game 1 on the road to start the Eastern Conference Semifinals with a 1-0 lead over LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

Among the adjustments the Heat must make for Game 2 are three top priorities: Tighten up their 4th quarter defense, play with a greater sense of urgency, and run the offense through LeBron James in late minutes when the game is close.

These three adjustments seem elementary at best, as a 5th grader could make these observations, but these issues seem to be a recurring theme for the Miami Heat in the postseason.

Just last season, the same lackadaisical tendency was shown during each of the first three Heat series. Against the Knicks in the first round, after the Heat rolled to a 3-0 lead, Miami went into cruise control and cruised to a Game 4 loss.

Against the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics in rounds two and three, the Miami Heat started each series with 1-0 and 2-0 leads respectively, only to allow that seemingly “lazy” play to let Indiana and Boston to gain leads in those series.

It wasn’t until the Heat tightened up their defense late, played with a sense of urgency, and allowed LeBron to run the offense that the Heat regained control and ultimately won those series.

I thought that the Heat’s defense in the last two minutes was lacking in two respects. First, they needed a better effort shutting down the ball handler, Nate Robinson. From watching tape on the Brooklyn Nets series, Coach Spoelstra must have realized Robinson was going to be a threat if not contained. Mario Chalmers and Ray Allen, although excellent defenders in their own right, are not the best available options in that situation. LeBron James has proven to be a shut down defender time and time again and I expect given a similar situation late, will defend Robinson in isolation.

The second piece of that puzzle is a stronger presence in the paint. Chris Anderson has shown that he can provide that much needed rim defense in case the perimeter defense is broken. Robinson is deadly of the dribble and showed that he could get his shot in close, without much help from either Chris Bosh or Udonis Haslem.

As far as playing with urgency, I doubt anything needs to be done here. Losing to the Bulls in game 28 of “the streak” had to have put a bad taste in the Heat’s mouth, of which Monday night’s Game 1 loss surely reminded them. Look for Miami to come out swinging in Game 2.

Lastly, the Miami Heat are at their offensive best when LeBron James has the ball. Not only does he command the attention of, likely, the Bulls’ best defender, but also that of the potential double team help from the wing, anyone assisting on the pick and roll, as well as the man defending the paint, should he need to come up to guard against James’ drive to the rim.

Fortunately for the Bulls in Game 1, this strategy for the Heat was stymied somewhat, as the shots weren’t falling on the James kick-outs for three (the Heat shot just 29% from behind the arch, down from their season avg. 39% and started 1-8 from three).

If the Heat can make the needed adjustments while finding their offense, it should mean getting back on track and possibly even an early end to the series. If not, it still could be an early end to the series…

It’s time once again for postseason greatness in the NBA.

Here are the Eastern Conference series:

(1) Miami Heat vs (8) Milwaukee Bucks

(2) New York Knicks vs (7) Boson Celtics

(3) Indiana Pacers vs (6) Atlanta Hawks

(4) Brooklyn Nets vs (5) Chicago Bulls

Break Downs and Predictions:

(1) Heat vs (8) Bucks:

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This series hardly requires any breaking down. Simply put, the Miami Heat are out of the Bucks’ league.

It’s possible that the Bucks may come within ten points of the Heat in one or two of the games, but even that is being optimistic.

Prediction – Miami wins series 4-0

(2) Knicks vs (7) Celtics:

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Much like the “2-vs-7” match-up in the West between the Spurs and Lakers, this series is very likely going to the final seventh game.

The New York Knicks have seen MVP level play from star Forward Carmelo Anthony and stellar support from J.R. Smith and Tyson Chandler.

The Celtics have been coping with the loss of All-Star Point Guard Rajon Rondo to an ACL injury. Stepping up to fill the void has been Avery Bradley. Forward Jeff Green has provided much needed scoring and will likely be the “X-factor” in the Knicks series.

Because both teams have formidable scoring threats as well as defensive abilities, I would give the edge to the better head coach. Doc Rivers is one of, if not the best coach in the East.

Prediction – Boston wins series 4-3

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(3) Pacers vs (6) Hawks:

They should call this series the “under-the-radar” series.

Both the Indiana Pacers and Atalanta Hawks have done simply just enough over the course of the season to make the playoffs without turning many heads or making any waves.

This strategy worked well for the Pacers last season as they proved the first real test on the Heat’s road to their championship, nearly stealing the series while Dwyane Wade struggled and Chris Bosh recovered from injury.

The Hawks pose no such threat to the Pacers who, even without Danny Granger, should handle Atlanta without much issue.

Prediction – Indiana wins series 4-2

(4) Nets vs (5) Bulls:

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The Chicago Bulls surely thought they’d be going into the first round of the playoffs this season with a healthy Derrick Rose, who tore his ACL in the first round of last year’s playoffs.

That, however, is not their reality as Rose continues his rehab months after being cleared by team doctors to return to action.

The Brooklyn Nets pose a large challenge for the shorthanded Bulls with All-Star Center Brook Lopez and elite Point Guard Deron Williams enjoying home court advantage.

The biggest chance the Bulls stand at beating the Nets is by exploiting their physical play. The X-factors for Chicago will be Joakim Noah and Nate Robinson.

Prediction – Chicago wins series 4-3

That wraps up the Eastern Conference first round match-ups. Can’t wait to see how it turns out.

The 2012-13 NBA season has concluded and the playoffs are on the near horizon.

Here are the Western Conference first round series:

(1) Oklahoma City Thunder vs (8) Houston Rockets

(2) San Antonio Spurs vs (7) LA Lakers

(3) Denver Nuggets vs (6) Golden State Warriors

(4) LA Clippers vs (5) Memphis Grizzlies

Breakdown and Predictions

(1) Thunder vs (8) Rockets:

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Almost one full year removed from the Thunder’s defeat at the hands of the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder stand as the top contender and No. 1 seed in the Western Conference entering the 2013 playoffs.

Arguably, the biggest off-season move made in 2012 was the Thunder’s trade of James Harden to the Houston Rockets, after failing to reach an agreement to extend the sixth-man-of-the-year’s contract.

Harden has proven himself among the NBA’s elite, ranking fifth in points per game over the season at 25.9. On an interestingly ironic side-note, Harden scored a career-high 46 points against the Thunder Feb. 20th 2013.

The Rockets may need four of those games from Harden in order to pull out a series victory though.

The Thunder won the regular season series against the Rockets 2-1. Without any player capable of shutting down Kevin Durant, Houston will need to score 125 points a game this series to compete. I can see that happening possibly once at home, but that’s it.

Prediction – Thunder win series 4-1

(2) Spurs vs (7) Lakers:

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There’s something about this series that screams “coin toss.”

A month ago, this match-up would likely have been dubbed an “easy sweep” for the Spurs. However, with the Lakers winning five straight games entering the postseason and the Spurs losing seven of their last ten, LA isn’t looking quite as outmatched.

Even without Kobe Bryant (out with Achilles injury), the Lakers have had success shooting the ball and big men, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, have been solid.

The coin flip aspect of this series, I feel, stems from the feeling that both the Spurs’ bad recent play and the Lakers’ stellar recent play are both anomalies, that could swap back at any time.

Only because I think it would be humorous to see the Lakers advance without the help of Kobe Bryant, will I give the Lakers the benefit of the doubt.

Prediction – Lakers win series 4-3

(3) Nuggets vs (6) Warriors:

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With two of the up-and-coming teams in the West, this series between Denver and Golden State may be the most high-flying and action-packed.

Both the Nuggets and Warriors average over 100 points per game. Alternately, they both allow over 100 points per game, so prepare for some classic offensive battles.

Heading the Warriors’ offense will be rising star Stephen Curry, who just broke Ray Allen’s single season 3 point field goal record. Leading Denver will be Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, and Corey Brewer.

Denver won the regular season series 3-1 with the lone loss coming on the road 106-105. I anticipate similar results.

Prediction – Denver wins series 4-1

(4) Clippers vs (5) Grizzlies:

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This series is an intriguing one in that the L.A. Clippers are the poster children for in-your-face, highlight-reel style basketball, while the Memphis Grizzlies are the prototype for flying under the radar with consistency and defense.

The Grizzlies are first in the NBA in points allowed at just 89.4 points per game allowed. I doubt the Clippers will worry much as they tend to gravitate towards the high percentage shots (A.K.A. the alley oop)

Memphis has their work cut out for them. We’ll see if they can use their size and defense to slow the game and make the Clippers beat them with range. I expect they will.

Prediction – Clippers win series 4-2

There you have it. Enjoy the Western Conference first round match-ups.

Jazz Lakers

After a heartbreaking loss to cross-town-rival L.A. Clippers, the Lakers are once again on the outside looking in as far as the playoffs are concerned.

That coveted eighth and final spot in the Western Conference playoff seedings is now held by the Utah Jazz, after they beat the Golden State Warriors on the road.

The Jazz hold a current half-game lead over the Lakers, which, because the Jazz own the tiebreaker between the two, is actually a 1 1/2 game lead. In other words, the Jazz’s proverbial destiny is in their own hands. Win out, and they’re in.

But, how likely is it that the Jazz win out? Not likely. However, the Lakers schedule is no treat either.

Jazz remaining schedule:

4/9 – vs Oklahoma City

4/12 – vs Minnesota

4/15 – at Minnesota

4/17 – at Memphis

Lakers remaining schedule:

4/9 – vs New Orleans

4/10 – at Portland

4/12 – vs Golden State

4/14 – vs San Antonio

4/17 – vs Houston

Mathematically, the Lakers need to win two more of their remaining games than the Jazz do. (i.e. if the Jazz win three of their four, the Lakers must win all five remaining games)

Looking at the Jazz’s remaining games against the Lakers’ remaining games, it seems highly unlikely that the Lakers get that spot back.

I would bet the Jazz end up winning three of their four games, with the lone loss coming against the Thunder at home.

This puts the Lakers in a terrible spot. Winning all five games is going to be nearly impossible. Nearly.

The two games I can see as the Lakers’ biggest issues are San Antonio and Houston.

The good news for LA is that both of those games are at home and both of those games are the last games of the season, which means both the Spurs and Rockets may be resting starters by then, as both of them have clinched their playoff spots.

The bad news, is that the Lakers aren’t exactly the most popular team in the NBA and it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that every team remaining on the Lakers’ schedule would love to play the “spoiler” role.

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The Miami Heat have played the best basketball since the All-Star break in the Eastern Conference, in which many have penciled-in the Heat as champs.

The Western Conference, however, seems to be less top-heavy. The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder are certainly two favorites to win the West’s Finals spot, but an upset somehow seems eminent this season.

If the Heat’s post-All-Star-break play is indicative of their postseason chances, the Denver Nuggets seem to me the current favorite in the West.

Their playoff road ahead may not be as friendly as the one the Heat are sure to see, with the potential of series’ against both the Thunder and the Spurs, but the Nuggets have proven capable of excellent road play of late.

Before the All-Star break, the Nuggets’ road record was an unimpressive 11-18. Since the break, the road record has improved to 18-21, or 7-3 since Feb. 19th, including wins at Oklahoma City, Chicago, and recently Utah.

They beat the Thunder on their home court as well, which is no surprise, considering the Nuggets own the league’s best home record at 33-3 (the Heat with only 32-4). Clearly, the Nuggets are the team no one wants to face right now.

What makes them so formidable, ironically, stems back to around the Carmelo Anthony trade in 2011. Piece by piece, the Nuggets have rebuilt the entire franchise. It’s no longer Melo, J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, and Chauncey Billups, with the team living or dying on Anthony’s 25-30 shots, but now a completely balanced team playing as a unit all season long.

Whatever happens, George Karl deserves the “Coach of the Year” award for the production he is getting from this squad. Four of five starters have started 70+ of 75 total games, (Ty Lawson starting 68).

Six players are currently averaging double-digit points per game. The team is so evenly balanced that the top 10 of 15 players on the roster are within 5 points as far as player efficiency rating.

The highest PER (Player Efficiency Rating) belongs to, should-be, “6th Man of the Year” Javale McGee at 20.9.

Their point guard play is excellent. There is not another player in the league faster with the basketball than Lawson. That kid can fly. He also has the fortunate option of assisting McGee, veterans Gallinari and Andre Iguodala, or rising star Kenneth Faried.

Faried is no joke. He can jump out of the gym and goes 100% every game. With a bit of work in the off-season on his shooting and post game offense, Faried looks to be a force for the Nuggets for a few years yet.

Even a run into the late rounds of the Western Conference playoffs would prove a glimpse of future successes and possibly Denver’s first Championship team.

Don’t count them out.

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The Lakers struggles this season have been front page news. How could they not be? With the additions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, the firing and hiring of Head Coaches Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni, respectively, this season has commanded nothing short of top attention.

To the surprise of most, the Lakers’ off-season moves to bring in top offensive talent, Nash, and defensive talent, Howard, has not panned out. At least, not as far as wins go.

With a record of 20-26, the Lakers are currently 10th in the Western Conference and four games out of 8th.

No one, besides perhaps the Lakers fanbase, has taken these struggles harder than Kobe Bryant. Makes sense, considering Bryant may be one of the most proud players in the league. He has also seen more victories than most other players too.

It seems Kobe has had to learn a hard lesson; his selfish scorer ways have been not only unnecessary, but seemingly counter-productive. 21 times this season Bryant has scored 30+ points. The Lakers are 7-14 in those games and 13-12 in games when he scores under 30.

Recently, Kobe has taken on the role of not only scorer, but facilitator. Sound familiar?

Michael Jordan was not revolutionary because he could score. Wilt Chamberlain scored. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored. Jordan changed the game by the way he scored, passed AND rebounded, making his teammates better.

Without Phil Jackson around implementing his triangle offense, Kobe has turned over a new leaf, or at least the last four games. Bryant has averaged 11 assists per game the last four games, up from his career 4.7 per game average.

The Lakers record the last four games? 3-1.

Now we’ll see if Kobe can keep it up.

Sunday February 3, 2013

***Baltimore Ravens vs San Francisco 49ers: 6:30 PM ET (CBS)***

Brothers John and Jim Harbaugh, head coaches of the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers, respectively, will lead their teams into Super Bowl 47 in New Orleans Feb. 3rd.

Both the Ravens and 49ers had to win on the road against the No. 1 seed, Baltimore at Denver and San Francisco at Atlanta. Both edged the top dog by less than five. Maybe more impressive is the gauntlet of quarterbacks each team has faced.

The Ravens defense has faced and stopped Andrew Luck (consensus future great), Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady. Likewise, the 49ers defense took down Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan.

Both quarterbacks, Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick, are playing in their first Super Bowl and have much to prove.

For Flacco, winning the Super Bowl would finally silence his critics. Even with the most road playoff wins of any NFL quarterback besides Eli Manning (tied for most), Joe has taken most all of the “Flacc” for the Ravens lack of Super Bowl visits in his 5 years at the helm. No doubt, Flacco is looking to follow Eli Manning’s pathway to respect.

For Kaepernick, winning the “Big Game” would mean “Kaep”-ping off one of the biggest success stories of the season. From day one, all eyes have been “Kaep” and Coach Harbaugh for the risky decision to replace 7-2 starter Alex Smith after he suffered a concussion. Making it to the Super Bowl alone has certainly cemented Colin as San Francisco’s man for a long time.

To answer the question of “Who will win this Super Bowl?” one must first answer another simple question: Which offense will be more successful against the other’s elite defense?

I believe the answer will be that the 49ers offense will be much more successful than the Ravens will be against the other’s “D.”

Baltimore’s offense is geared towards setting up the run, stable tight end play and airing out deep bombs when available. The 49ers defense is built to stop this exact method. With one of the best, arguably the best, “front seven” in the NFL, no team has comfortably run on the 49ers. The back end of that seven, lead by Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman are some of the best coverage line backers in the league and can hold the Ravens’ TE Dennis Pitta in check. Tony Gonzales’ numbers from last week are not indicative of what to expect as Baltimore does not have a Roddy White/Julio Jones tandem to cover as well.

The Baltimore defense, specifically its own “front seven” is also no joke. Anchored by Haloti Ngata, the Baltimore line is more than capable of stopping the run and rushing the QB with stand-out Paul Kruger, Hall-Of-Famer Ray Lewis, and beast Terrell Suggs. Fortunately, the 49ers offense has no holes, least of all in the O-Line.

Prediction: Last season, the Harbaugh brothers faced off in Baltimore, where the Niners’ offense struggled to put anything but 3 points on the board in a 16-3 disappointment. You can bet the Niners’ bolstering their offense in the postseason had a lot to do with games like this. Younger brother gets the last laugh. San Francisco wins 35-20.