Once the NCAA Basketball Tournaments come around, the rest of the NBA season can feel like a slog. If you were already upset about players missing games, the volume gets ratcheted up on that, and at that point it’s fairly clear which teams are the best in the league. It’s also hard to muster excitement for a March NBA on TNT Tuesday after inhaling single-elimination basketball through a gas mask since Thursday. Then once the college basketball postseason concludes, there’s another two weeks left of regular season games that make some people wish for a real-life simulate button.
It doesn’t have to be this way though.
Most people are not like me. They don’t have NBA League Pass, and even if they do, it’s probably not their default television choice. In 2018, it was during one of those groggy Weeknights that I was in and out of sleep on the couch when at a certain moment I was shaken awake by a few plays from the Los Angeles Lakers. I doubt they won the game, they didn’t win much the year before LeBron James’ arrival, but they were young, explosive, and making plays as the competitive teams in the league were winding down.
Since then, once the calendar turns to mid-March, outside of a major prime-time matchup in which the stars decide they want to play against each other before the playoffs, the best bet for entertainment is a young team trying to build on something positive at the end of the season. This season, that team has been the Houston Rockets.
Jalen Green was supposed to be in the Rookie of the Year conversation at the end of the season. Jalen Rose and Jay Williams thought that he would be the best player from the 2021 draft class. It was a brutal start this fall for Green. In October the Rockets played six games, and Green shot 33.7 percent from the field. November was a bit more respectable, but he was still only averaging 14.5 points per game on 40.7 percent from the field. He also went down with a hamstring injury at the end of the month that cost him 14 games.
When he came back, brief success tailspun into a complete disaster. There was a stretch in late January when Green shot less than 25 percent from the field in three consecutive games. In 14 games in January he averaged 13.1 points per game on 32.8 percent from the field, 28.7 percent from three. This all while Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes, the third and fourth picks in the NBA Draft, were the clear favorites in the Rookie of the Year race while playing for teams jockeying for postseason positioning. He even somehow managed to be the most disappointing performer in the Slam Dunk Contest — the event that was supposed to show off his greatest asset, his athleticism.
After the break, all Green did was average 28.7 points per game on 47.6 percent from the field and 38.7 percent from three while attempting eight per game. It can be argued that he’s been the best rookie since the break, and the most exciting player in the league. If you turn on the Rockets he will make at least one play in every game worthy to be shared in the group chat. Look at this block he had against the Toronto Raptors. He was high enough to crash head-first into the rim. Barnes should get the award for his consistency and helping the Raptors out of the play-in, but let’s be clear, he can’t make this play.
As you can see from the bookend of this sequence, Green isn’t the only exciting player on the Rockets. That is Kevin Porter Jr. flying past Pascal Siakam for the slam. Porter’s blow ups have been what he’s received the most publicity for, but he also has been playing much better basketball post all-star weekend. He’s averaging 18.9 points per game and shooting over 35 percent from the 3-point line. On top of being a high-flyer, and long-range threat, he is a dynamic ball handler. Defenders who are isolated against him, good luck.
The Rockets also have another first-round pick from this season, Alperen Şengün. They traded a couple of future first-rounders to the Oklahoma City Thunder who selected the young talent from Turkey for the Rockets. During summer-league play, he showed natural footwork in the paint, nice touch at the rim, and also some playmaking ability along with being a strong presence in the paint. He and Jonathan Kuminga were two of my favorite players to watch during the 2021 Summer League.
Şengün has not been a double-double machine, or even averaged double digits this season. But he has also improved, and if you watched him play in the post recently, you would see that he’s starting to get a great feel for the game, even though he will probably play another year of summer league.
The Rockets have another impressive young athlete in Jae’Sean Tate, and let’s not forget the one player everyone expected to produce once they traded for him, their No. 1 option— Christian Wood. Since the Rockets traded for him, he’s averaged 19.1 points per game, a shade under 10 rebounds, and shot 50.1 percent from the field. Wood is also a long player capable of snatching an alley-oop from the heavens.
Unfortunately for the Rockets, all of this fun did not result in consistent winning at any point this season. They had the worst record in the NBA. They’re the classic play fast, second in the NBA in PACE, to cover for their lack of efficiency on either end of the court, 26th on offense and second to last on defense. At least their win total improved by three wins from last season.
Even though the Rockets finished 2021-22 with another dreadful record, there is hope. There is talent on the rosters, the players are just going to have to be more consistent on offense and play at least a little defense. Until they make these changes, by adding to the roster or their players’ games maturing, personally I’m satisfied with the Rockets entertaining me for two months before the playoffs begin. In these final months, the league is sometimes at its best with young players bouncing around the floor just trying to make plays and get better.
Women’s leagues WNBA, etc. have ushered in sports’ golden age
Choosing between women’s and men’s sports is a false choice. If you’re a certain blogger for Glenn Beck’s conservative Blaze media, revisionist history can be a comfort zone that vilifies feminism in sports as your woke sports boogeyman, but makes you look like a headass instead. Jason Whitlock’s resentment-driven tweet on women’s basketball’s place at the bottom of the sports hierarchy eventually led to a longer missive against women’s societal advancements and the fall of masculinity.
Oddly enough, in a link I don’t care to share, Whitlock proceeded to blame feminism for everything ranging from drag queens, to the degradation of the nuclear family, and the decline of biblical values. In Whitlock’s opinion, the glass ceiling wasn’t sturdy enough.
He pontificated in his Wednesday column: “As technology advanced and curbed the natural hardships of basic survival, American men led the world in granting freedom and autonomy to women. Feminists have taken advantage of man’s instinct to please women, casting themselves as long-suffering victims of male supremacy, and reshaped American society into a culture that favors the weaker sex.”
In fairness to Whitlock, let’s analyze all the excellent points he made.
Hold on a second. I read the entire screed. Something will squeeze out soon…
Whitlock spews more garbage
He did attempt to trace a crooked link between modern society and early man’s roles as hunter-gathers, but it doubled as a rant against evolution. Imagine beginning your argument for a return to medieval masculinity by bemoaning women’s sports on TV. As usual, the intellectual cupboard is bare. Whitlock’s fragility over women’s sports is indicative of the obstacles women in workplaces have always faced. For a contingent of dudes who take his word as gospel though, women’s sports are their bête noire.
Battling over an alternate view of history that makes a case for how sexism was good or opining that the women from the Greatest Generation who took occupations in defense plants and factories during the war effort of the 1940s defanged American culture is a fascinating insight into how a twisted mind justifies itself. Don’t give yourself hemorrhoids trying to mine wisdom from those thought turds, and never roll with a pig in his sty.
Women’s leagues have helped usher in sports’ golden age
If you’ve browsed the front page of Deadspin’s space lately, or any industry leaders like Fox Sports, ESPN, CBS Sports, or Yahoo Sports, you’d know the myth of the feminist agenda pushing men’s sports aside is a pile of crap. America’s Big 4 leagues, plus NASCAR, Formula 1, college football, and college basketball have reigned supreme since being given a 50 to 75-year year head start over organized women’s athletics.
In a few short months, the U.S. Women’s National Team will defend their World Cup so you can expect to see their faces plastered all over ESPN screens between now and then. The USWNT has won half of the first eight Women’s World Cups FIFA’s held, but had to grapple with U.S. Soccer for pay commensurate with men last year. Their decades-long push was reminiscent of Billie Jean King and the “Original Nine’s” early enterprising. Their revolutionary founding of the WTA is one of the impetus for women’s tennis being on a more equal footing with the men’s tour.
The most prominent leagues have had to share space in an increasingly crowded room (pickleball has entered the chat), but this is the golden age of live sports. The continued growth of women’s leagues has been nearly as monumental as streaming has been to prestige television. The only downside to the panoply of options at our disposal is the paradox of choice.
Dawn Staley and Kim Mulkey are college basketball titans
Today men’s college basketball is in a rut. It’s as rife with parity, as it is empty in name-brand, blue-chip talent, or upper-echelon teams. The inverse of men’s hoops’ suboptimal tornado of middle-of-the-road teams, is happening in the division where Dawn Staley’s South Carolina Gamecocks are cruising toward a repeat. Fans love dynasties and one may be building in Columbia.
UConn is still a threat on Feb. 5, however, its biggest obstacle resides within the SEC.
Kim Mulkey and Staley have taken the baton as college basketball’s preeminent rivalry. The juiciest storyline in college basketball, regardless of gender, is the upcoming tilt between the only undefeated teams left in the nation. Hopefully, someone informs Alfalfa’s He-Man Womun Haters club not to switch on the late-night SportsCenter shows on the night of Feb. 18.
The halcyon yesteryear of the UConn-Tennessee rivalry is long gone in the Vols’ post-Pat Summitt era. Even with former Naismith Player of the Year Paige Bueckers on the mend for the entire season and phenom Azzi Fudd in and out of the lineup, UConn has been firmly entrenched in the top 10. Tennessee is still on the road back to prominence under Kellie Harper and was promptly smacked down by the Huskies on Thursday night.
While we’re on that note, contrary to the Blaze TV blogger’s soliloquy about women’s advancements coming off the backs of men’s work, the infrastructure for modern women’s basketball was originally built by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. At its peak, the AIAW’s membership consisted of 280 colleges that held championships across 19 sports, including women’s hoops. The AIAW was a women’s collegiate sports organization founded by women, but in 1981, the NCAA took over from the AIAW after 120 schools left for the more economically advantaged NCAA.
Breanna Stewart’s free agency
Over in the WNBA, free agency is in full bloom. Candace Parker is vacillating on whether to wind her career down in Chicago or with one last hurrah in Los Angeles. Free agent center Brionna Jones, the reigning Sixth Player of the Year, is essentially seeking to branch out after her second Finals appearance. Think of a bigger James Harden in 2012, trying to loosen himself from Oklahoma City’s bench.
The bulk of WNBA free agency attention is trained on Breanna Stewart’s movements. Reportedly, Stewart has whittled her choice down to approximately four teams, including her home state New York Liberty, a pairing with Elena Delle Donne in Washington, running it back with a depleted Seattle Storm roster, or zagging unexpectedly to the Minnesota Lynx.
There’s no planned primetime TV special starring Jim Gray, or Hannah Storm for the internet Whitlocks to carp about, but the Liberty are what everyone in the league office is undoubtedly rooting for. Imagine if LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh had chosen the Knicks in 2010. Or if Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Harden had been a more well-adjusted collection of personalities. Stewart linking up with 2020’s No. 1 overall pick, Sabrina Ionescu, recently acquired 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones, and free agent Courtney Vandersloot would be the culmination of an arms race with the Las Vegas Aces.
In addition to looking out for her own future, Stewart is using her clout to engineer solutions to funding charter flights for the league’s 12 teams. Stewart’s efforts have reignited the discourse around the WNBA’s problematic travel arrangements. We’ve long known that cramming long athletes onto commercial flights dozens of times a season is a hindrance to peak performance, but the WNBA hasn’t quite taken it to heart yet and Stewart’s not keen on waiting until the CBA expires in 2028 to address it.
Ultimately, for every sports fan with Whitlock’s attitude, there’s Kobe Bryant. Kobe and others understood that a rising tide lifts all boats. In his final years, Kobe became an advocate for women’s hoops. Then, three years and a day ago, he perished on his way to coach his daughter’s AAU team. But if you’re having trouble choosing between living in a shared reality where the Black Mamba’s noblesse oblige spirit is considered ruinous to culture or one where internet Whitlocks signify strength, your worldview is bass-ackwards and you’ve got your head on the wrong side of your torso.
Pep Guardiola jokes he’s ‘sorry’ that he stopped Mikel Arteta from becoming Manchester City manager
The Gunners head north leading rivals City by five points with a game in hand atop the Premier League, but acutely aware of the challenging taking on the frustrated Guardiola and company.
Arteta left Guardiola’s City setup in December 2019 to take the Arsenal helm, transforming the Gunners in remarkable fashion since.
“I am pretty sure if I would have left here before, he would be here [at City] and he would be the best, absolutely,” said Guardiola, of Arteta.
“But I extended my contract, I am sorry, and he didn’t wait, so it could not happen. But definitely it could have.”
Arteta joined Manchester City’s coaching ranks on retiring as a player in 2016, learning his craft under master tactician and serial winner Guardiola.
City’s former Barcelona boss revealed how Arteta would never celebrate goals against the Gunners, the team he represented more than 100 times between 2011 and 2016.
“He loves the club; I remember when we were together here and we scored goals, he jumped a lot and celebrated – except with one team,” said Guardiola.
“One team, every time we score a goal, I jump, look back and he was sitting there. It was Arsenal.”
R Madrid 3 – 1 A Madrid
Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior scored in extra-time as Real Madrid fought back to beat local rivals Atletico 3-1 on Thursday and reach the Copa del Rey semi-finals.
On a freezing night at a sold-out Santiago Bernabeu hosting its first game for 77 days due to the World Cup break, Real started slowly and Atletico had many dangerous counter-attacks.
Atletico captain Koke delivered a brilliant through ball to Nahuel Molina who ghosting in behind Reals defence and the full back set up Alvaro Morata, a former Real academy player, to tap the ball into an empty net in the 19th minute.
Eder Militao wasted a golden chance to equalise in the 32nd minute after Toni Kroos had delivered a perfect cross.
It was not only until Dani Ceballos came off the bench to replace the injured Ferland Mendy late in the first half that Real started to play better.
The 26-year-old midfielder injected a new dynamic into the team who were far more aggressive after the break.
Benzema wasted two good opportunities and Federico Valverde also sent a shot wide from just outside the box.
Substitute Rodrygo equalised in the 79th with a delightful goal, dribbling past three defenders before finishing well.
With Real Madrid in full control, Atletico played most of extra time with 10 men after defender Stefan Savic was shown his second yellow card for chopping down Eduardo Camavinga in the 99th minute.
Five minutes later, Real substitute Marco Asensio sent a low cross into the box and Vinicius’s deflected shot reached Benzema who unleashed an unstoppable strike into the net.
Vinicius secured Real’s win in the dying seconds with a brilliant individual goal, running half the length of the pitch before scoring with a low shot.
“We got behind very early and after Mendy’s injury the whole team had to be rebuilt. But we woke up and played really well after the break,” Ceballos told TVE.
“They played better in the first half, but the coach corrected things in the second; we took control of the ball and found the goal. Then, after the red card, everything was easier.”
Real Madrid joined Barcelona, Osasuna and Athletic Bilbao in the semi-finals.
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