Chris Paul traded to Houston Rockets, but how is it going to work?

Photo: Keith Allison via Flickr.com

The Houston Rockets sent shock waves through the NBA on Wednesday when it was reported they had traded multiple players and a draft pick to the Los Angeles Clippers for All-NBA point guard Chris Paul.

The trade was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski, who wrote:

The Rockets will send the Clippers guards Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams, forwards Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell, the non-guaranteed deals of DeAndre Liggins, Tim Quarterman and Ryan Kelly, and a 2018 first-round pick (protected Nos. 1-3) for Paul, league sources told The Vertical.

That’s a lot for one player, but the argument could easily be made that Paul is worth it.

Included in Paul’s accolades are nine All-Star teams, nine All-Defense teams, and eight All-NBA teams.

Widely regarded as one of the best point guards in the league and a future Hall of Famer, Paul will be teaming up with James Harden in Houston in an attempt to help the Rockets dethrone the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference.

But how exactly is it going to work?

At the start of last season, the Rockets announced that Harden would be the team’s point guard and he returned the favor with the best season of his career.

Harden averaged career-highs in points (29.1), assists (11.2), and rebounds (8.1), numbers that would have been MVP-worthy had Russell Westbrook not finished the regular season averaging a triple-double.

Since the experiment worked, it was believed Harden would be the point guard of the future while Houston searched for a big man to team up with him.

Instead, the Rockets are hoping Paul’s presence creates a dynamic duo that is now in the conversation of the best backcourts in the league.

And Harden seems to be onboard.

While the Rockets had been “Harden’s team” since he arrived at the start of the 2012-13 season, various reports have indicated that he wouldn’t mind shifting back to the shooting guard position or sharing the point guard role to allow Paul to play in his natural position.

Harden also reportedly met with Paul to discuss what their roles would be in H-Town:

Earlier in the offseason, the most likely destinations for Paul seemed to be Los Angeles or San Antonio, as the Spurs and the 32-year-old had “serious” mutual interest, but “the chance to play off ball and share point guard duties with James Harden was more attractive,” according to ESPN’s Marc Stein.

Since his rookie season, Paul has been the best player on his team, so he will be entering uncharted territory by having to potentially play sidekick to Harden.

At the same time, Harden hasn’t had a player of Paul’s caliber to team up with since he arrived in Houston.

The two seem to have one thing in common, though — eyes on a ring.

Paul left more than $10 million on the table in allowing himself to be traded to what he believes will be a contender and Harden is willing to sacrifice being the star on his team for a shot at a championship.

Will Harden’s slash and get-to-the-rim offense compliment Paul’s patient mid-range and pass-first mentality? Or will they struggle to find a rhythm on the court?

They have some time to work on it, but one thing seems certain — if Paul and Harden get this figured out, the Rockets may have the fuel to propel into the Western Conference’s elite.

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Oregon’s Jordan Bell takes blame for Final Four loss: ‘This will hurt forever’

Screenshot via Pac-12 Network interview

Athletes endure highs and lows during their careers, but Oregon’s Jordan Bell felt the lowest of the latter on Saturday night when he took the blame for his team’s 77-76 loss to North Carolina in the NCAA Final Four.

The Ducks had two chances to grab boards with fewer than six seconds left and their team failed on both opportunities to secure the rebound.

Bell was pointed out as the biggest reason for the miscue when replays showed he struggled to box out his man both times.

After the game, an emotional Bell apologized for the errors and put the blame solely on himself.

“If I would have just boxed out, I had two opportunities to do it,” Bell said through tears. “I missed both of them. We lost the game because of it.”

It seems unfair to point the finger completely at Bell, especially given the outstanding performance he displayed earlier in the game.

He had a game-high 16 rebounds to go with 13 points and four blocks and was a huge part of the reason Oregon was in the game in the first place.

And Bell was far from the only Duck who had trouble boxing out.

The Tar Heels finished with 43 boards, matching their 43.4 boards per game season average which was the most in the country. Seventeen of those rebounds were on the offensive end.

Oregon, which started the tournament as a three-seed and hadn’t been to the Final Four in 78 years, made a huge run late to make things competitive against the favored Tar Heels.

Down six points with fewer than 45 seconds left in regulation, the Ducks’ bracket run seemed all but over, but consecutive buckets pulled Oregon within one point with 5.8 seconds left.

An intentional foul sent the Tar Heels’ Kennedy Meeks to the line with a chance to extend North Carolina’s lead but he missed both free throws. Oregon’s hustled for the rebound but the ball was kicked out to the top of the key where Joel Berry II was standing.

The Ducks were forced to foul again sending Berry and his 80.8 season free throw percentage to the line.

Uncharacteristically, Berry also missed both of his free throws but Meeks’ rebound secured a berth in the National Championship game for North Carolina:

In a team game, it’s often difficult to point fingers at a single player for a team’s loss.

It should be noted that the Ducks would have never been in the Final Four if not for Bell, rather than that they lost because of him.

Bell finished with a double-double in four of the five games Oregon played in the tournament this year.

“You play your a** off all season, but in the game that matters and in the moment that matters, I didn’t do my job,” Bell said. “This is going to hurt forever.”

North Carolina will now play Gonzaga for the national title on Monday night.

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LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas making MVP conversation a little more interesting

Photo: Keith Allison via Flickr.com

Photo: Keith Allison via Flickr.com

There’s no formal definition in regards to a Most Valuable Player.

The word “valuable” has several definitions, meanings, and synonyms, meaning there are several ways it can be interpreted.

That rings especially true in conversations like the one setting the NBA on fire this season regarding who will be bestowed with the Maurice Podoloff Trophy at the end of the year.

But to get to the end, let’s start at the beginning.

The debate truly began when most people thought there wouldn’t be one — before this season started, when Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City. Most NBA aficionados agreed this would be Russell Westbrook‘s year to shine in ways he hasn’t before.

And he’s delivered.

Through 62 games this season, he’s averaging a career-high (and NBA-high) 31.7 points along with 10.7 boards and 10.1 assists, still on pace to become the first player since the early 1960s to finish a season averaging a triple-double.

How does a man with those kind of numbers not earn an MVP award, right?

But just as many fans were ready to hand the Trophy over to Westbrook, James Harden and the Rockets caught fire.

Not that anyone expected Harden to have a bad year, but who would have predicted he would challenge Westbrook in total triple-doubles for the year? The Beard quietly has 15 such performances, five of which he has scored at least 40 points.

Harden has played in the same number of games Westbrook has and is only two rebounds per game shy of averaging a triple-double himself.

And then the conversation became just that — a conversation.

Gone were the days when Westbrook was the clear favorite, especially because it’s fair to include the success of a player’s team when defining the word “valuable”.

What value do you truly bring to your team if you can post incredible individual statistics but can’t lead your team to wins?

The argument hindered Westbrook but glorified Harden, who now has the Rockets sitting in the 3-seed in the Western Conference with a 43-19 record.

But Westbrook, undeterred, helped turn the Thunder from a one-man wrecking crew into a legitimate playoff team. After starting the year 8-8, Oklahoma City now sits in the 7-seed with a 35-27 record.

And now the argument is that Westbrook has slightly better stats with a slightly worse win-loss record while Harden is just the opposite.

Voters will have to decide which they value more in a race that is clearly between the two unless somebody comes around and…

Image result for lebron staredown gif

Alright LeBron, fair enough. We see you and you do make an interesting point.

It’s almost hard to believe The King hasn’t captured an MVP award since the 2012-13 season, but his string of success in the past month has catapulted him back into the conversation, right behind Westbrook and Harden.

It would be a near miracle if James came away from this season with the award, but his relevancy to his team simply can’t be ignored.

The 32-year-old is having his best season statistically since re-joining the Cavs in the latter part of his career, with 25.9 points, 8.9 assists, and 8.1 rebounds per game.

But where he stands out above most players is his “value” to the team when comparing games that he’s on the floor and games that he’s not.

When James is on the court, the Cavaliers are +10 in points scored per 100 possessions, as opposed to being -4.7 per 100 when he’s on the bench. Now add in the fact that the Cavs are winless (0-4) in games James did not play this year and 42-14 when he did.

The Cavaliers have not slipped from first place in the East since the season began and while Kyrie Irving can certainly take some of the credit, James is the centerpiece of the reason Cleveland is expected to go to the NBA Finals again this year.

So now voters must take into account that definition of “valuable” when looking to award their MVP.

But then if we are looking through that lens, it would be unfair to overlook and leave out Boston’s Isaiah Thomas.

Thomas, the NBA’s biggest little man at 5-foot-9, broke out this season and is averaging a career-high 29.4 points per game.

His importance to Boston was clearly underappreciated and undervalued until the second trimester of the NBA season.

During that 28-game span, Thomas scored 13.1 points per game in the fourth quarter alone, leading the Celtics to a 21-7 record and into the 2-seed in the East.

Dubbed “Mr. Fourth Quarter”, Thomas’ reliability makes him by far the most valuable player on Boston’s roster and would probably make him the most valuable in the East if not for James.

Thomas also seems to play his best basketball when he’s needed the most.

While many players struggle to play consistently well during back-to-backs on the NBA schedule, Thomas actually plays better with no days rest.

In 14 such games, he’s averaged 32.7 points and 5.7 assists on Day 2 of a back-to-back, averaging 35.4 minutes in those games as well.

Maybe we should call him Mr. Endurance, too.

In the two games that Boston has kept him on the floor for more than 40 minutes, he’s averaged 39.0 points and 7.0 assists.

If that’s not valuable, I don’t know what is. Then again, who really knows what valuable means.

At the end of the day there seems to be four major players in the race for the MVP title. Two favorites, two dark horses, two from each conference.

Each brings something a little different to the table, it will all just depend on the preference on the voters.

So what makes a player most valuable? I guess we will just have to wait and find out.

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Super Bowl LI Pick, Predictions: Can high-flying Falcons offense help capture first ring?

Photo: Georgia National Guard via Flickr.com

Photo: Georgia National Guard via Flickr.com

Sunday, Feb. 5

New England Patriots (16-2) vs Atlanta Falcons (13-5)

The Patriots and Falcons will square off on Sunday in a battle that pairs expectation against destiny.

New England is playing in its seventh Super Bowl in 16 years and are in position to win their third title in six seasons.

The Falcons are making just their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.

The Patriots had 6/1 odds to win the Super Bowl as early as Sept. 5, by far the league favorites.

Longshot Atlanta’s odds were down to 150/1 just two weeks after that.

Experts pegged New England to win at least 12 games this year, even with Tom Brady‘s four-game suspension.

The Falcons were expected to finish between 5-11 and 7-9.

One team followed a familiar script. The other didn’t.

Sunday will feature David versus Goliath, although David is a well-oiled machine that can certainly give Goliath a run for his money.

Atlanta is led, as they have been all season, by one of the best offenses in the history of the NFL.

Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Devonta Freeman combined to help the Falcons average a league-high 33.8 points per game this season, excluding their 80 combined points in two postseason games.

What makes the Falcons even more dangerous is their exquisite use of role players who play certain spots better than most on any other teams in the league.

Wideout Mohamed Sanu has had at least four catches and a touchdown in three straight games. Halfback Tevin Coleman hauled in nearly 1,000 combined total yards of rushing and receiving to go with his 11 touchdowns this season — as the team’s backup running back.

And 5-foot-8 slot receiver Taylor Gabriel has had at least six catches and 60 yards in three of his last five games.

Atlanta’s offense has little in terms of weakness, but what awaits them on Sunday is a challenge unlike one they have faced this year.

The Patriots quietly possess the league’s top-ranked defense, hidden in Brady’s shadow. While most of the focus when facing the Patriots is on the team’s offense, the defense has played better than anyone expected.

Equipped with playmakers like Dont’a Hightower, Logan Ryan, and Devin McCourty, New England’s defense allows a league-low 15.6 points per game.

The unit allows only 88.6 rush yards per game (3rd) and has the third-best turnover ratio in the NFL (+12).

But there are cracks in the foundation; cracks that Matt Ryan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will want to expose early and often.

The Patriots’ secondary allows 237.9 yards per game through the air, an average number that ranks 12th in the league.

Their top corners, Ryan and Malcolm Butler, are both under six-feet tall, giving a significant advantage to Julio Jones’ 6-foot-3 frame.

Jones exploded for 180 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the NFC title game against a Packers’ secondary that featured similarly-sized corners.

But that doesn’t mean Ryan and Butler aren’t up for the challenge.

They’ve gotten the best of Antonio Brown, Jarvis Landry, and others this year, although Jones may be their biggest test of all.

Still, Matt Ryan has become an expert at picking apart defenses and will likely find ways to spread the ball if the Patriots figure out how to suffocate Jones.

On that note, if there’s anyone in the league that is better than Ryan at dissecting defenses, it’s his counterpart, Tom Brady.

Brady will be playing in his seventh Super Bowl game, an event that has seen him combine for 1,605 passing yards, 13 touchdowns and only four interceptions — and four wins.

The veteran has been playing this season with four weeks’ fewer preparation than anyone else in the league, without Rob Gronkowski, and without a true No. 1 receiver.

But it didn’t stop him from leading New England to their 12th AFC East title in 13 years or their sixth-straight AFC title game. Love him or hate him, Brady is a specialist at finding players to fill the void when defenses aren’t paying attention which often leads to wins.

Just ask Chris Hogan and his 275 receiving yards and two touchdowns in two playoff games this year.

Brady’s experience will do him well in this game and it doesn’t hurt that Atlanta sports one of the worst pass defenses in the league (266.7 ypg, 28th), which is where Atlanta has the most to worry about.

We know their offense will score, but can their defense stop Brady or LeGarrette Blount?

Of course the more exciting matchup will be the reverse — can the Patriots defense stop Ryan’s offense?

Super Bowl LI will mark the sixth time in Super Bowl history that the league’s top-ranked offense and top-ranked defenses square off.

The team with the No. 1 defense won four of the first five times.

Another stat to keep an eye on is that of Brady’s six Super Bowl appearances, none have been decided by more than four points.

New England rarely dominates big games, but they certainly tend to win them.

Q’s Pick: Patriots, 31-27


Last Week’s Record: 2-0

Postseason Record: 9-1

Regular Season Record: 165-89-2

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NFL Conference Title Game Picks, Predictions: Which team’s defense blinks first?

Photo: NFL News Desk Admin via Flickr.com

Photo: NFL News Desk Admin via Flickr.com

Sunday, Jan. 22

Green Bay Packers (12-6) at Atlanta Falcons (12-5)

The Packers were never supposed to be here, the Falcons were expected to be.

And so begins the storyline of a Cinderella team visiting a heavy favorite — except that this Cinderella team is hardly a big underdog.

The Packers have rolled into this matchup on an eight-game win streak including a dramatic win over the NFC’s No. 1 seed Dallas Cowboys.

Aaron Rodgers continues to mystify defenses, even without Jordy Nelson, and Green Bay’s own depleted and injury-ridden defense has found ways to come up with stops that play into the “next man up” mentality.

Standing in their way is a Falcons team that has MVP candidate Matt Ryan at the helm of an offense that has scored at least 32 points in each of their last five games, including last week’s postseason win over a solid Seattle Seahawks defense.

And it’s Atlanta’s offense that poses the biggest threat to the Packers in their quest to reach their first Super Bowl since 2011.

Green Bay shut down a rusty Cowboys offense in the first half of last weekend’s game but showed their true colors as the game progressed.

When all was said and done, the Packers had allowed 429 yards of total offense, including 6.7 yards per play, and gave up 18 points in the fourth quarter, indicating that had Rodgers not spotted them so many points in the first half, they may have been on their couches this weekend.

The Packers defense looked tired in the second half of last week’s game, worn down by Ezekiel Elliott‘s power run game, and now they have to deal with Atlanta’s dynamic duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

The Cowboys didn’t use a secondary running back so when Elliott was off the field, the run defense was able to focus elsewhere. They can’t do that against Freeman and Coleman, who rotate consistently and are both explosive, quick runners who have hands as well and often pick up big yards on screen plays.

Freeman actually had more receiving yards than Julio Jones in last week’s game against Seattle, picking up 80 yards on just four receptions.

The Packers defense also gave up 302 passing yards to Dak Prescott and now have a much more accurate, more experienced Ryan to face.

Ryan has been on fire as of late, throwing 14 touchdowns and no interceptions in his last five games.

Not to be outdone, Rodgers has thrown 24 touchdowns and only one interception since Nov. 20, compiling six 300-plus yard games in that span.

The end result should be a shootout between these teams and whichever defense blinks first will be on the wrong end of the final score.

The oddsmakers have set the over-under for this contest at 61 points, which, if it stands, is a new postseason record.

Q’s Pick: Falcons, 34-30


Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5) at New England Patriots (15-2)

This is the Patriots’ sixth-straight appearance in the AFC Championship Game, though they have only reached the Super Bowl twice in that span.

If their defense shows up against Pittsburgh’s high-flying offense, it will be time to celebrate in Boston.

One of the biggest difference makers of this game could very well be where it’s played.

The Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell have led their team to a variety of exciting wins this season — but most of those have come at home as opposed to on the road.

If you look at Roethlisberger’s splits, you’ll find that he’s thrown 20 touchdowns and only five interceptions at Heinz Field, but has a nine touchdown to nine interception ratio on the road. His QB Rating is a whopping 116.7 at home and only 78.4 on the road.

That’s good news for a Patriots defense that struggled a bit with Brock Osweiler last week.

Speaking of quarterbacks, Tom Brady is looking to continue what has been a solid season even after he missed the first four games of the year.

The Patriots like to win when Brady plays — they have only lost once since he took over in early October, he has an 8-1 record in the postseason at home since 2011, and he has a 4-0 career record against the Steelers at Gillette Stadium.

New England also has an underrated run defense that might be able to contain Bell — though I use “might” loosely.

On one end, the Patriots allow only 88.6 yards per game on the ground, a number that was the third-fewest in the league this year.

On the other end, Bell, unlike Roethlisberger, plays better on the road than he does at home, rushing for more than 113 yards per game as opposed to only 98 at home.

These teams met earlier this season and when they did, the Patriots held Bell to only 81 yards on 21 carries, and they will need a similar gameplan if they want to keep him quiet again.

This game could go either way, but the Patriots are hard to beat at home and that makes them hard to pick against.

Q’s Pick: Patriots, 30-28


Last Week’s Record: 3-1

Postseason Record: 7-1

Regular Season Record: 165-89-2

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NBA 2017 All-Star starters revealed: Curry, Harden get nod, Westbrook left out

Photo: GameFace-Photos via Flickr.com

Photo: GameFace-Photos via Flickr.com

The 2017 NBA All-Star Game starters were officially announced on Thursday after weeks of voting from fans, players, and media analysts alike.

The ten starting players will be as follows:

Western Conference

Eastern Conference

One of the biggest controversies following the announcement will surely be the absence of Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook, who is in the MVP discussion but will not be a starter in the Western Conference.

Westbrook is bound to be a reserve but will start the All-Star Game on the bench despite averaging a triple-double this season. His 30.6 points (a league-high), 10.4 assists, and 10.6 rebounds per game have helped him lead the NBA with a 29.56 player efficiency rating, according to ESPN.com.

If Westbrook finished the season with the numbers he has put up to this point in the year, he would be the first player to finish a season averaging a triple-double since Oscar Robertson did it in 1961-62.

Harden has been the other player in the perennial MVP conversation this season, so it makes sense that he is starting, but it may have made more sense to start Westbrook and Harden alongside each other.

Curry is averaging 24.6 points, 6.1 assists, and 4.2 rebounds per game; All-Star worthy numbers, but numbers that don’t surpass Westbrook’s phenomenal season.

What set Curry apart from Westbrook is the fact that he led the “fan vote” in the Western Conference and, fair or unfair, the fans were responsible for 50 percent of the vote in determining this year’s starters. Players made up 25 percent and media members made up the other 25 percent.

Harden, who finished second among Western Conference guards in the fan vote, is fewer than two rebounds per game shy of averaging a triple-double himself this season.

The rest of the All-Star starters out West (Leonard, Durant, and Davis) were no-brainers, although this was Davis’ first time being named a starter.

In the East, Irving and James are the only ones in the starting five that have been named a starter before.

Butler and DeRozan have been named reserves before, but superb years and some help from the fan vote gave them each well-deserved starting roles.

Antetokounmpo will be playing in his first All-Star Game all together, but a breakout season made it nearly impossible to leave him out of the starting five.

The 22-year-old is averaging 23.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.1 blocks, and 1.8 steals per game, leading the Bucks in each category.

Boston point guard Isaiah Thomas, who is scoring 28.7 points per game including a league-high 10.1 in the fourth quarter, made a strong case to start in this year’s Game, but he will most likely be a reserve this year.

The same can be said about Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins, whose 28.0 points and 10.1 rebounds per game were only a hair short of Davis’ numbers.

The 66th NBA All-Star Game will be played on Sunday, Feb. 19, in New Orleans at the Smoothie King Center.

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Chris Paul’s thumb injury means all eyes are on Austin Rivers halfway through season

Photo: Keith Allison via Flickr.com

Photo: Keith Allison via Flickr.com

A seven-game win streak has helped the Los Angeles Clippers tread water in the Western Conference this season, but rough waters lie ahead.

Chris Paul, the team’s nine-time All Star, is expected to miss about a month and a half as he recovers from a surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb.

Paul injured the thumb in the second quarter of Monday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

After jamming it while guarding Russell Westbrook, Paul immediately left the game and headed to the locker room. The initial diagnosis was a sprain, but on Tuesday, an additional test revealed a tear.

Paul is scheduled to have surgery to repair the ligament on Wednesday.

The injury comes just days after the veteran point guard missed seven games with a strained hamstring.

In the 36 games he’s played this year, Paul has been both consistent and efficient, leading the Clippers to a 29-14 record and the fourth seed in a competitive Western Conference. His 9.7 assists per game are fourth-most in the NBA and he’s balanced that number with 17.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.2 steals per game.

Now the Clippers, who went 2-5 in the games Paul missed, are tasked with staying afloat without their veteran leader.

Austin Rivers is expected to take over as the team’s starter at the point, though he isn’t nearly the playmaker Paul is.

Few players are.

But Rivers has shown in his career that he simply plays a different style of basketball than Paul, which will take a bit of adjusting to in the long run.

The Clippers usually lean on Paul’s exceptional passing abilities to work the ball around the floor, but Rivers tends to look more comfortable shooting than passing the rock.

A career backup, Rivers is averaging only 2.1 assists per game in his career. This season, in a career-high 26.3 minutes played per game, he is averaging 2.5.

If there is reason for optimism, it’s that Los Angeles is expected to get Blake Griffin back in the next few days, having played without him for nearly a month as he recovers from knee surgery.

Griffin has shown his importance to the Clippers as well and he, along with DeAndre Jordan, has helped shape Los Angeles’ frontcourt into one of the most exciting in the league.

With Paul gone, the two are missing the dynamic ring leader that has helped both of them average double digits in the scoring column.

That means all eyes are on Rivers and if he can orchestrate a talented team as the quarterback on the floor.

Ball movement will be key.

While Rivers has had occasions this season where he has put together six or seven assists in a game, he has had many more performances that have shown his focus was on scoring and not moving the ball.

On Saturday, in 31 minutes played, Rivers only contributed two assists to go with his 15 points.

On Jan. 6, he scored 24 points in 36 minutes but had only two assists. And on Dec. 28, he played 32 minutes, scored 22 points even while going 2-for-8 from beyond the arc — and had zero assists.

Paul’s ability to move the ball runs parallel with his leadership ability; for years he’s been able to get everyone involved on the floor and use everyone to their potential.

That’s not to say Rivers should suddenly become Paul in the next few weeks, but it’s certainly his job now to keep the Clippers moving and work everyone to their potential.

It’s his job to get everyone involved, not just himself. He has the ability to do it, it will be intriguing to see if he can.

The Clippers’ next game is Thursday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

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NFL Divisional Round Picks, Predictions: Cowboys win close game, Patriots win big

Photo: Keith Allison via Flickr.com

Photo: Keith Allison via Flickr.com


Saturday, Jan. 14

Seattle Seahawks (11-5-1) at Atlanta Falcons (11-5)

The Seahawks demonstrated something last weekend that they haven’t all season — a dominant run game.

Thomas Rawls ran for 161 yards, reaching the 100-yard plateau for just the second time this season. It was also only the third time Seattle had a 100-yard rusher all year.

That poses an interesting matchup against a Falcons defense that ranked 17th this season in yards allowed on the ground (104.5 ypg), especially because Seattle might get C.J. Prosise back this week.

But the “matchup to watch” is unquestionably Matt Ryan‘s high-flying offense against a Legion of Boom that will be without Earl Thomas.

These teams met in Week 6 and Ryan lit up Seattle’s secondary for 335 yards and a trio of touchdowns, one of which went to Julio Jones who led both teams with 139 receiving yards.

And that was against a defense with Thomas.

Seattle won that game 26-24, but it was in Seattle before the Falcons had truly found themselves as a unit.

Russell Wilson performed well last week against the Lions, throwing for 224 yards and a pair of touchdowns which helped him finish with a 119.3 passer rating, and he will need similar numbers to beat the Falcons.

The concern is if he can outduel Ryan offensively, because as good as Seattle’s defense was last weekend, they haven’t been nearly the same unit on the road.

Seattle will give the Falcons a game, but Atlanta should have enough firepower, and more rest, to seal a spot in the conference championship game.

Q’s Pick: Falcons, 34-24


Houston Texans (10-7) at New England Patriots (14-2)

Of all the games so far this postseason, this one seems to be the first that has clear indications of a blowout.

For the sixth time in franchise history, the Patriots are the No. 1 seed in the AFC and they aren’t a team to mess with when earning that distinction. Four of the first five times, the Patriots have ended up in the Super Bowl, twice they have won it.

New England hasn’t lost this season since the Seahawks upset them at Gillette Stadium back on Nov. 13, and they haven’t lost a home playoff game since the 2012 postseason.

OK, Tom Brady and company are the top dogs, we get it.

Can Houston really keep up with this team?

Well, the Texans have never won a game at Gillette Stadium, and when they tried visiting earlier this year they were dismantled, 27-0.

They will also be playing in sub-30 degree temperatures, a bit of a culture shock after beating the Raiders in their cozy dome last weekend.

The only thing Houston seems to have on their side is their defense.

Their secondary was the second-best in the league this season, allowing only 201.6 yards per game through the air. If they want to win they will have to shut down Tom Brady, something very few teams have ever been able to do.

Brock Osweiler will has his confidence back and that bodes well against an average New England secondary, but Lamar Miller might struggle against a Patriots run defense allowing fewer than 89 yards per game on the ground (3rd).

It would take a tremendous mixture of perfection from the Texans and imbalance from the Patriots for Houston to pull off what would be one of the biggest upsets in modern NFL postseason history.

Q’s Pick: Patriots, 31-20


Sunday, Jan. 15

Green Bay Packers (11-6) at Dallas Cowboys (13-3)

When these teams met in Week 6, Dallas demolished the Pack at Lambeau Field, beating Green Bay, 30-16, while dominating on both sides of the ball.

Don’t expect such a blowout this week.

The Cowboys have been a good team all season but the Packers had yet to find themselves when that matchup occurred.

As of now, Green Bay is riding a seven-game winning streak and proved to the Giants last weekend that they are a legitimate threat in the NFC.

But one of their biggest complications this weekend has nothing to do with Dallas.

It’s wondering how their offense will respond without Jordy Nelson, who was ruled out of this matchup with a pair of broken ribs.

Nelson, one of the premiere receivers in the game, scored 14 touchdowns this season and finished with more than 1,200 receiving yards, racking up at least 100 yards in a game five times.

His absence leaves pressure on Aaron Rodgers to rely on Randall Cobb and Davante Adams, among others, to penetrate a Dallas secondary that has been below average at stopping quarterbacks this season.

But Dallas has been sneaky good at stopping the run game, leading the league by allowing only 83 yards per game on the ground. If Dallas can stop the run game and rush Rodgers into poor throws, they will have a big advantage.

On the other side of the ball, Green Bay is tasked with slowing down Ezekiel Elliott, who rushed for 157 yards when they played earlier this season, and Dak Prescott, who threw for 247 yards and three touchdowns in the same game.

The Packers run defense is solid so they have a chance against Elliott, but the secondary is still questionable and gave up nearly 300 yards to Eli Manning last weekend excluding a number of dropped balls from Giants’ receivers that weren’t well defended.

Prescott needs to figure out how to get the offense going through the air in the event that Elliott can’t get anything going on the ground.

Don’t sleep on Rodgers and the Packers though — unlike the Cowboys, they’ve been in the postseason many times before and know what to expect.

Prescott and Elliott are still rookies so mistakes are bound to happen.

Still, Dallas seems to have a more complete, reliable, and healthy team right now and they should win what could turn into an instant classic.

Q’s Pick: Cowboys, 26-23


Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

Weather concerns pushed this game back to primetime following the Cowboys-Packers game, but this is another one that could come down to the wire.

The Steelers are led offensively by Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell and the Chiefs have to figure out how to keep them from compiling yardage.

That’s been an issue for Kansas City this season.

The Chiefs defense allows 247.4 yards per game through the air (18th) and 121.1 yards per game on the ground (26th).

So how have they been able to win 12 games this season?

Turnovers and points allowed.

The Chiefs defense had a league-high 33 takeaways this season and their plus-16 turnover differential was tied for the highest in the league. They also tend to make stops when they matter most as they are one of only seven teams in the league allowing 19 points or fewer per game.

The high-yardage they allow is like playing with fire, though, especially against an offense as explosive as Pittsburgh’s.

If the Chiefs can’t get those turnovers or big stops, the Steelers could put up the same numbers they put up against the Dolphins last weekend.

On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh’s defense has improved since the start of the season, but is still considered average statistically in most major categories.

They will be tasked with stopping Tyreek Hill, a do-it-all First Team All Pro in his rookie season.

Hill is the only real difference-maker the Chiefs have on the offensive side of the ball, besides Travis Kelce, so stopping him would force Alex Smith to open up a passing game that only averaged 233 yards per game through the air.

The Chiefs can win this game, but the Steelers have been playing so well as of late I think Pittsburgh should be the first team this postseason to win on the road.

 Q’s Pick: Steelers, 27-23


Last Week’s Record: 4-0

Postseason Record: 4-0

Regular Season Record: 165-89-2

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Klay Thompson hilariously interrupts Steph Curry’s pregame antics without noticing

Photo: nikk_la via Flickr.com

Photo: nikk_la via Flickr.com

The Golden State Warriors beat the Detroit Pistons, 127-107, on Thursday night at Oracle Arena, displaying the same offensive dominance basketball fans have become accustomed to seeing from the Bay Area team.

Leading the charge, once again, were Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors backcourt pair of superstars who have helped lead Golden State to a 34-6 record through the first 40 games of the season.

They’ve also helped the Warriors score 100 points or more in 48-straight games, the longest streak the NBA has seen in nearly three decades.

As good as the Warriors have been in recent years (with this year being no exception), they’ve shown it’s important to have some fun throughout the long season and they accidentally gave fans a good laugh on Thursday night right before the Pistons game tipped off.

During their pregame shootaround, Curry set a ball on the three-point line with the intent to give it a soccer-style kick to a teammate on the other side of the court before Thompson nonchalantly picked up the ball and used it to continue his pregame shooting.

Curry’s free kick had been hilariously interrupted:

Thompson didn’t seem to realize that his pregame focus had barged into Curry’s fun, but Curry couldn’t help but laugh after the fact.

Thompson’s locked-in mentality served him well after the incident, though, as he would go on to score 23 points against the Pistons, 12 of which came from beyond the arc.

Curry added 24, including draining some wild buckets from three-point land that many fans have grown used to seeing him make.

The Warriors and Kevin Durant seem to be in good shape to lead the charge in the Western Conference once again and are looking to go to what would be their third-straight NBA Finals.

We’ll see if they continue to give us laughs along the way.

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NFL Wild Card Weekend Picks, Predictions: Steelers score big, Lions keep it close

Photo: Keith Allison via Flickr.com

Photo: Keith Allison via Flickr.com


Saturday, Jan. 7

Oakland Raiders (12-4) at Houston Texans (9-7)

One of the most intriguing elements of this matchup is that last month, few could have seen it happening.

The Raiders were 10-2 and looked in place to clinch at least one of the top two seeds in the AFC and the Texans had stumbled to a 6-6 record and were in danger of missing the postseason.

Thanks to division inequality, Oakland’s 12 wins weren’t enough to win their division while Houston’s nine wins were.

But the bigger storyline in this matchup is at the quarterback position.

Oakland had a potential MVP candidate in Derek Carr, but his broken leg and Matt McGloin‘s shoulder injury means Connor Cook will be the first quarterback in NFL history to make his first career start in a postseason game.

Houston’s QB situation isn’t much better — after a dismal year from Brock Osweiler, Tom Savage was expected to be the team’s savior by the end of the season. Now that a concussion has forced Savage out of Saturday’s game, Osweiler will be asked to lead the same team that benched him a few weeks ago to a win.

It’s seems more likely, though, that defenses will decide the winner of this game, not the quarterbacks.

The Texans allowed only 301.3 total yards per game this year, the fewest in the league. Oakland allowed 75 yards more per game and ranked 26th.

Houston also has the second-best secondary in the league, statistically, and that’s bad news for Cook who threw for only 150 yards and an interception against a similarly impressive Denver defense last weekend.

Oakland’s defense isn’t good enough to contain Osweiler or Lamar Miller. The Texans should get the upset win at home.

Q’s Pick: Texans, 27-24


Detroit Lions (9-7) at Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1)

When Seattle plays in a postseason game at home, they win. At least, that’s what history shows as the Seahawks have not yet lost a playoff game at CenturyLink Field.

But this isn’t the same Seahawks team from seasons past.

They struggled to finish the year on a high note and will now be forced, for the first time, to endure the grind of the postseason without their star defensive anchor Earl Thomas.

His absence might be tested by the Lions who have shown that Marvin Jones and Golden Tate can both serve as deep threats; the only question being if Mathew Stafford and his broken fingers can throw a ball that far in what could be cold, snowy weather.

The forecast calls for a chance of “freezing rain” (to wit, I’ve never seen written that way before), but that usually means more utilization of the run game — something neither team is good at.

The Seahawks went from averaging more than 140 yards per game on the ground last year to a hair over 99 yards per game this season, thanks in large part to Marshawn Lynch‘s absence and slew of injuries to Thomas Rawls and others.

Detroit, on the other hand, never seemed to recover from Ameer Abdullah‘s leg injury early in the season and averaged only 81.9 yards per game on the ground, third-fewest in the league.

The lack of run game means the better quarterback may end up being the difference maker.

Russell Wilson is 7-3 in his postseason career with 16 passing touchdowns, and he will have a healthy Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham to orchestrate the air game against a Lions defense that gave up four touchdowns and 300 yards to Aaron Rodgers last week.

CenturyLink Field will be rocking and the Seahawks should be able to rally behind it to get a close win.

Q’s Pick: Seahawks, 24-23


Sunday, Jan. 8

Miami Dolphins (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)

In spite of Miami’s impressive and well-earned record, I’m really struggling to see how they are going to contain Pittsburgh’s offensive three-headed monster.

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell all helped the Steelers average more than 372 total yards per game, 7th in the NFL.

The Dolphins, thanks to a dreary run defense, ranked 29th in terms of yards allowed per game. They are one of only three teams in the league that allowed more than 140 yards per game on the ground this season and they will now get the luxury of being the first team the Steelers’ “Big 3” gets to play against in the postseason together.

Bell missed the past two playoffs with knee injuries, but this year, on the heels of becoming the first player in NFL history to average more than 100 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards per game, he is ready to show why he is considered one of the most dynamic players in the league.

On the other side of the ball, the Dolphins will also have to try to work around the absence of Ryan Tannehill, although Matt Moore has looked like this has been his team since the start of the season.

Jay Ajayi has anchored Miami’s rushing attack which has been surprisingly good this season, hovering around 114 yards per game. The Steelers run defense (and secondary for that matter) rank right in the middle of the league in most major categories so there’s a chance they could be exploited.

Still, the Steelers have only lost one playoff game at home since 2007 and the Dolphins haven’t won a playoff game since 2000.

 Q’s Pick: Steelers, 30-23


New York Giants (11-5) at Green Bay Packers (10-6)

I like what the Giants have done this season but Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are on a tear right now and showed no signs of slowing down last week.

Green Bay essentially played their way into this matchup by beating the Lions for the NFC North crown last weekend, their sixth-straight win.

But now they get to play in somewhat unfamiliar territory — a postseason game at home.

Since 2009, eight of the Packers 12 playoff games have been on the road.

The Giants, on the other hand, are in unfamiliar territory by verge of just being in the postseason, somewhere they haven’t been since they won the Super Bowl in 2011.

This year’s New York squad has struggled on offense to the point that it’s almost a wonder they won 11 games. In spite of having Eli Manning and Odell Beckham, the Giants were one of only eight teams in the league to average fewer than 20 points per game.

New York’s run defense has been among the league’s best this season, but it won’t help much against Green Bay who hasn’t been able to get anything going on the ground all season.

Rodgers will be tasked with leading Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb against a physical and intimidating secondary that gave up 251 yards per game through the air.

The Packers should keep rolling in this one.

Q’s Pick: Packers, 26-20


Last Week’s Record: 12-4

Regular Season Record: 165-89-2

Postseason Record: 0-0

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