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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Blake Griffin, Four Celtics Headline 2011 NBA All-Star Reserves

Blake Griffin, Four Celtics Headline 2011 NBA All-Star Reserves

NEW YORK  -- Blake Griffin is going to his first All-Star game, and Kevin Garnett matched an NBA record with his 14th straight selection as one of a record-tying four Boston Celtics headed for the midseason event.

Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen will accompany Garnett, who equaled Jerry West, Shaquille O'Neal and Karl Malone for the most consecutive selections. The Celtics joined the 2006 Detroit Pistons as the only teams to have four players picked as reserves by the coaches.

Griffin, the Rookie of the Year favorite of the Clippers, will be playing on his home floor in the Feb. 20 game at Staples Center. Joining him on the Western Conference team were Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili of the NBA-leading Spurs; forwards Dirk Nowitzki of Dallas and Pau Gasol of the Lakers; and guards Deron Williams of Utah and Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City, who joins Griffin as the lone first-time selections.

Chris Bosh will go to Los Angeles with Miami teammates LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who were elected as starters. The other East reserves picked Thursday were Atlanta's Joe Johnson and Al Horford.            

The reserves were selected in voting by the head coaches in each conference, who had to vote for two forwards, two guards, a center and two players regardless of position.

They went for the winning teams in the East, whose reserves are represented by just three teams.

The voting was much more difficult in the West, where coaches bypassed the likes of Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Zach Randolph and Lamar Odom at the forward spot.

Tony Parker missed out despite being the second-leading scorer on the Spurs, who entered play Thursday with a 40-8 record. Veteran Steve Nash of the Suns and the Warriors' Monta Ellis, the league's sixth-leading scorer, all fell short.

The starters were chosen by fan voting and announced last week. Orlando's Dwight Howard, Chicago's Derrick Rose and Knicks forward Amare Stoudemire are the other East starters, while the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, Hornets guard Chris Paul, forwards Carmelo Anthony of Denver and Kevin Durant of Oklahoma City, and Houston center Yao Ming were the winners from the West.

Yao is injured and Commissioner David Stern will choose a replacement. That gives another chance to Love, who is averaging 21.4 points and a league-best 15.5 rebounds, and shooting 43.9 percent from 3-point range. He has 34 straight double-doubles, but was undoubtedly hurt by his Minnesota Timberwolves' 11-37 record.

But the coaches couldn't overlook Griffin, even though the Clippers are also below .500. The No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft has been spectacular after sitting out last season following knee surgery, averaging 23 points and 12.7 rebounds while compiling a half season of highlights with his array of dunks.
Bill Belichick Wins Coach of the Year, Joins Tom Brady With AP Honors

Bill Belichick Wins Coach of the Year, Joins Tom Brady With AP Honors

For the second straight night a member of the New England Patriots has been recognized for an outstanding 2010 regular season as Bill Belichick was selected as the Coach of the Year by The Associated Press. This is the third time Belichick has won the award, only one less than Hall-of-Famer Don Shula, as he received 30 votes from the 50-member voting panel, and joined his quarterback, Tom Brady, who won Offensive Player of the Year honors on Tuesday.

"I accept the award on behalf of the entire organization -- ownership, our assistant coaches and certainly the players -- they're the ones that stepped up and made the plays this year," Belichick said in an NFL Network phone interview. "We had a lot of new people on the team, young players that contributed. It's certainly an honor to receive this award on behalf of our performance in the regular season. Unfortunately, we weren't able to carry that over into the playoffs."

Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris finished second with 11 1/2 votes after engineering an impressive turnaround with the Bucs, but it was not enough to outdo Belichick, who led New England to a league-best 14-2 record. He did so with his youngest team in years and without Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins for the first seven games, picking up steam after trading wide receiver Randy Moss to Minnesota.

With the departure of Moss it was thought by many that the Patriots' offense would struggle, but then Belichick put together a trade with Seattle that brought about the return of Super Bowl XXXIX MVP Deion Branch at wide receiver and the offense didn't miss a beat. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis broke the 1,000-yard rushing barrier and New York Jets castoff Danny Woodhead provided the spark that was missing after all-purpose back Kevin Faulk suffered a season-ending knee injury.

"When I chose him, people at the league office, people in this town, sent me tapes of him in Cleveland and said, 'You don't want to hire this guy,'" Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. "And, remember, he went 5-11 (in his first year with Patriots) and we gave up a No. 1 draft choice (to the Jets to get him). People thought we were nuts. So I think that probably was one of the best decisions I've made in football."            

Belichick also won the award in 2003 and 2007 and his record with the Patriots is 126-50, plus a 14-5 mark in the postseason, with losses in the last three tries with teams that went a collective 40-8. His career winning percentage of .716 ranks eighth, tied with Hall of Famer Paul Brown, and no other coach has four 14-victory regular seasons.

Also receiving votes were Kansas City's Todd Haley (4), whose team went 11-5 and won the AFC West; and four coaches with one selection apiece: Atlanta's Mike Smith, Philadelphia's Andy Reid, Chicago's Lovie Smith and St. Louis' Steve Spagnuolo.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Syracuse Ends Skid, Beats No. 6 UConn

Syracuse Ends Skid, Beats No. 6 UConn

Brandon Triche led Syracuse with 16 points and Rick Jackson added 13 points and 13 rebounds as Syracuse finally got back to its winning ways Wednesday at Connecticut.

No. 6 Connecticut (17-4, 5-4) scored the first six points of the game and led for much of the first half, but Jackson's short jumper gave Syracuse a slight halftime lead. The Orange came out hot in the second half, reeling off seven straight points and they would lead by as many as nine. UConn was able to cut the lead to one late, but was never able to get over the hump.

No. 17 Syracuse (19-4, 6-4) needed a win badly after dropping four straight games, culminating with back-to-back losses to Seton Hall and Marquette.

Jeremy Lamb led all scorers with 22 points for the Huskies, and no other Connecticut player reached double figures.

Containing Kemba: For the first time this season, Kemba Walker didn't score in double figures. He had only eight points on 3-of-14 shooting, continuing his recent struggles. After starting the season white hot, Walker has only averaged 14.5 points a game over his last four.

Friendly Confines? Though they have come against ranked teams, Connecticut has now lost back-to-back games at home after breezing through its non-conference slate. It's certainly not panic time yet, especially with the Huskies' next three against unranked foes, but holding home court is imperative if they hope to stay in the race for the Big East Crown.

New Streak: After winning their first 18 games, the Orange dropped four straight. Now, after a tough win on the road, perhaps they are poised to put another streak together. They go to South Florida this weekend before getting Georgetown at home and traveling to Louisville. It's a tall order just to reel off four straight in the Big East -- especially for a team that has looked as out of sorts as Syracuse recently -- but the Orange should at least be close in their next three.
Tom Brady Named Offensive Player of Year

Tom Brady Named Offensive Player of Year

When you put together the kind of season quarterback Tom Brady did for the New England Patriots, you better expect your fair share of postseason accolades. And Brady added another one to his mantle on Tuesday -- Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year.

The three-time Super Bowl winner was the epitome of efficiency in 2010, throwing 36 touchdown passes while only being intercepted four times for a ridiculous touchdown-to-interception ratio of 9-to-1. His string of 339 consecutive pass attempts without an interception is a new NFL record and he also threw for 3,900 yards while completing 66 percent of his passes.

Brady was the unanimous winner, receiving 21 votes from the 50-member panel to finish 10 votes ahead of second-place Michael Vick (11 votes). Houston Texans running back Arian Foster finished third with seven votes, followed by San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers with five and Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson two apiece.            

Three years ago, Brady also won the award and set an NFL record for most touchdown passes in a single season with 50 in leading New England to a perfect 16-0 record in the regular season, but his and the Patriots' dream of going 19-0 overall to eclipse the 1972 Miami Dolphins' 17-0 record fell short in a 17-14 loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. This time around his 111.0 passer rating was the fifth best all-time and New England rolled to a 14-2 regular-season record only to lose to the New York Jets in the AFC divisional playoffs.

Shortly after the official announcement was made on the NFL Network, Brady, just 10 days removed from foot surgery, hobbled onto the set on crutches to do an interview with Steve Mariucci. He addressed the broken bone in his foot that plagued him down the stretch in the regular season but didn't keep him off the field.

"Over the course of the season, a lot of players throughout the league, a lot of players on our team deal with these type of injuries," Brady said. "Part of having a little bit of mental toughness is putting those things aside and still going out and trying to perform your best each week. I have a great training staff and my friend Alex (Guerrero) that works with me weekly.

"I'm in great hands and they were able to get me out on the field feeling good and I was able to go out there and help our team win the AFC East, which we're all very proud of."

Brady might not be finished racking up the hardware as he is the favorite to take home the AP's Most Valuable Player award on Sunday. If he does win it he will become the first player ever to sweep Offensive Player of the Year and MVP honors twice (he accomplished the feat in 2007). His head coach, Bill Belichick, also is one of the favorites to win Coach of the Year.
Chris Warren 3-Pointer Buries No. 10 Kentucky at Mississippi

Chris Warren 3-Pointer Buries No. 10 Kentucky at Mississippi

Chris Warren hit a deep, contested three with 2.9 seconds remaining to lift Ole Miss to a huge upset win over visiting Kentucky, 71-69.

Warren's three came after Kentucky took a brief one-point lead after trailing by as many as 11 in the second half. He took a ball screen, went left and fired the shot over the outstretched arm of Terrence Jones.

A 13-0 Ole Miss run gave the Rebels a nice cushion early in the second half, but a run led by Kentucky's trio of freshmen pulled the 'Cats back into it. Two free throws from Jones gave Kentucky a brief lead with just over a minute to play.

Ole Miss (14-8, 2-5) has had trouble in conference play so far, but it will have a significantly easier schedule in the second half of the season.

Warren led the Rebels with 22 points and fellow senior Zach Graham added 16, including a perfect 7-for-7 from the line.

No. 10 Kentucky (16-5, 4-3) was led by Jones with 22 points and 12 rebounds, while Doron Lamb added 20 and Brandon Knight had 15.

How it was won: Execution. Not only did Ole Miss shoot the ball well, it also forced several turnovers and got the short-benched Wildcats into early foul trouble. In addition, the Rebels were able to stay afloat after Warren went to the bench early with foul trouble.

How it was lost: It would be easy to hang this one on UK's turnovers, but it lay more in the play of Kentucky's upperclassmen. Earlier this week, John Calipari called on Darius Miller, DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson to guide the young Wildcats on the road. Tuesday night, the three freshmen combined for 57 of UK's 69 points.

Botched late possession: After Kentucky took the one-point lead, the Wildcats were able to get the ball back after stopping the Rebels on the other end. Late in UK's possession, Miller seemed to have a wide-open look at a three but he passed it up, penetrated and finally kicked it out to Liggins, who didn't realize the shot clock was winding down. He was forced to hoist a wild three which didn't hit the rim, setting up Ole Miss for the game winner.

Where to from now: Just as Ole Miss' schedule lightens, Kentucky's gets much tougher -- which is bad news for the Wildcats, seeing as how they have not been good on the road. They play at Florida Saturday night before getting Tennessee at home and then another tough road game to Vanderbilt.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Troy Polamalu Named NFL

Troy Polamalu Named NFL's Defensive Player of Year

When Pittsburgh faces Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV on Sunday, one Steeler will already be able to claim victory over a Packer. Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu was named The Associated Press 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year on Monday, scoring 17 first-place votes from the AP's panel of 50 media members; Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews came in second with 15 votes.

Polamalu didn't have his best season statistically, but he did tie for second in the league with seven interceptions (one for a touchdown), while continuing to show a knack for making big plays. Polamalu came up huge in Week 13 against the Ravens, forcing a crucial fumble in a Pittsburgh win that would ultimately decide the division.            

Despite missing two games, in which Pittsburgh went 1-1, Polamalu became the sixth Steeler to win the award. He had seven interceptions this season along with 63 tackles, but made his mark with big plays. In a late-season victory at Baltimore, his leaping tackle forced a fumble that set up the winning touchdown.

"With all due respect, I honestly think Troy Polamalu is probably the greatest player I've ever played with or even seen play in person," said Jets receiver Santonio Holmes, an ex-Steeler. "Everybody has their one person they think is the greatest player. In my eyes, I think he's the greatest player I've ever played with."

"In my eyes, I think he's the greatest player I've ever played with."
-- Santonio Holmes
Matthews finished with 13 1/2 sacks, good for fourth in the league in his second professional season. He also returned an interception 62 yards for a touchdown against the Cowboys in a mid-season blowout victory. In Green Bay's Week 17 win against the Bears that secured their spot in the playoffs, Matthews recorded a fourth-quarter sack on Jay Cutler on third down, proving he also had the ability to come up big in critical situations.

Matthews' defining game came in Week 1, when he recorded three sacks against the Philadelphia Eagles, knocking Kevin Kolb out of the game (and eventually out of a starting role). The next week, Matthews sacked Buffalo QB Trent Edwards three times in what would be Edwards' last game with the Bills.

Polamalu's teammate James Harrison, the 2008 AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year, finished third in the balloting with eight votes after recording 100 total tackles, 11 sacks and two interceptions. Julius Peppers finished fourth with six votes in his first season with the Bears while Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher received two votes. Baltimore's Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata each picked up a vote as well.
Cavaliers Crumble Again as Wade, Bosh Turn Up the Heat

Cavaliers Crumble Again as Wade, Bosh Turn Up the Heat

MIAMI -- The Miami Heat handed the Cleveland Cavaliers their 21st consecutive loss with a 117-90 blowout at the AmericanAirlines Arena in yet another reminder of how much LeBron James' departure and arrival has impacted both teams. It's been 44 days and counting since Cleveland's last victory back on December 18th against the New York Knicks and while they were missing key players including Anderson Varejao, Daniel Gibson and Mo Williams to injury, the Cavs managed to make it interesting as they got within 70-67 early in the third quarter until they fell apart and order was restored quickly.

While the Cavs offense generally did a decent job attacking the Heat's interior defense which netted several easy buckets in the paint, culminating in a 37-point second quarter outburst, their defense continuously allowed Dwyane Wade and James to attack the basket unimpeded which freed up the Heat's shooters to also do their damage. Cavs guard Anthony Parker could only look back in frustration as his team goes through one of their most futile stretches in franchise history.

"They're a good team," Parker said. "They've got some players that can make plays even if you do everything right and I thought we tried to do, for the most part, the right things but it didn't go our way for a stretch. It's unfortunate because we fought so hard to get back into it."            

Heat's Big 3 finally return to Miami

Heat fans had to wait nearly a month to see James, Wade and Chris Bosh together on the floor again in Miami and the wait was certainly worth it. While Bosh struggled throughout the game, likely as a result of playing 36 minutes on Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder in his first action since returning from an ankle sprain, with only 10 points and 7 rebounds, the duo of Wade and James was more than enough to liven up the crowd. One such play featured James making a spectacular dunk with three Cavs defenders all over him, bringing Wade to his feet in celebration from the bench.

"Since he's landed in Miami, we haven't seen too much of that," teased Wade with James sitting next to him. "He left a little bit back in Cleveland so I've been waiting on it and it kind of happened so fast that it threw me off. When he goes to the basket I always expect him to do that. That's about the first time in 48 games so it was great to see. Hopefully he'll get that left leg pumping and we can get some more of that in the second half of the season."

James reaches out to Harris

Immediately following the conclusion of the game, James made his way towards the Cavs bench and first exchanged some friendly words with Jamario Moon before talking extensively with undrafted rookie Manny Harris who recently moved into the starting lineup and was one of the few bright spots for Cleveland with his second consecutive 20-point game.

"I've known Manny since he was in high school all the way through college in Michigan," explained James. "I think he's a very talented young player. I just told him no matter what's going on with the team he has to continue to play well, be aggressive and have his confidence and don't let any distractions on and off the court stop him from trying to be a really good player in this league. I've seen him get his opportunity with the injuries that they've had and he's played exceptionally well."

Harris told reporters it was one of the first instances all year that an opposing player had talked to him after a game. James was his favorite NBA player growing up and he was all ears as James gave him some veteran wisdom.

"I think my confidence will be the same but coming from a player like him and his caliber, it means a lot," he noted. "Everything he said was right."

Bosh declines to continue war of words with Kevin Durant

With Kevin Durant's surprising comments after Oklahoma City's loss to Miami on Sunday about Bosh's toughness, the Heat forward was given the opportunity Monday night to respond but casually dismissed the criticism.

"Oh yeah, I heard it," he replied. "I'm not even known for that, I just play ball and that's really it. When you play the game, things will get heated, you have a couple of words and there might be a scuffle but that's really it. I left it where it was, it wasn't that big of a deal for me."
Surprising Louisville Stalls on Potential Ride From Good to Great

Surprising Louisville Stalls on Potential Ride From Good to Great

WASHINGTON -- Preston Knowles' head was hanging as he sat at his locker in Verizon Center Monday night, not long after Louisville's rally against Georgetown fell short, 62-59. Like his teammates, he had played a role in the 15th-ranked Cardinals' dud of a first half, and in the charge back into the lead in the second half, then its stumbles in the final two minutes as the 13th-ranked Hoyas held them off.

As a follow-up to Louisville's electrifying double-overtime victory at Connecticut two days earlier -- one that elevated the Cardinals, unranked in the preseason, to their highest poll position so far -- this was far from an embarrassment. Yet Knowles, Louisville's only senior starter and its leading scorer, couldn't find any satisfaction either from the unexpected overall showing (they are now 17-5 and tied for second in the Big East at 6-3) or the near-miss against Georgetown.

"We were picked eighth in our conference,'' he said. "I think we exceeded not our expectations, not our team's, but everybody's expectations for us. But we want to become a great team, and we have to sacrifice and do the things to become a great team.''

Knowles' reaction indicates that he heard and absorbed coach Rick Pitino's post-game lesson for his team: that he was "really, really upset with them," for a reason.

"We gave them a speech before the game about good to great, that good is the enemy of great,'' Pitino continued. "And I want them to understand that as you try to go up the ladder to become a good basketball team, you've got to hate losing. It's got to gnaw at you. You can't say, 'Well, that was unbelievable, what a great comeback,' be satisfied with the comeback and the moral victory. That's what an inexperienced team can be. It doesn't matter if you have great heart, you have to win the game.            

"Don't tell me that you have great heart, don't tell me that you have great character -- you've got to win the game. Nobody remembers great heart and character. They just remember the win.''

"Don't tell me that you have great heart, don't tell me that you have great character -- you've got to win the game. Nobody remembers great heart and character. They just remember the win.''
-- Louisville coach Rick Pitino
Wins like the one at Connecticut Saturday, its most impressive in a season no one rationally expected from a team as young and depleted by graduations, early departures and defections as this one. It also was shorthanded Monday, with forward Rakeem Buckles still out with a broken finger, freshman Gorgui Dieng out for a second straight game with a concussion, and Jared Swopshire still not having suited up yet this season with a groin injury that needed surgery. Those three are 6-foot-8 or taller, leaving Pitino to start four guards against the Hoyas.

It all nearly didn't matter -- but in the end, Louisville wasn't able to recapture the magic in its second straight road game against a nationally-ranked Big East team. The Cardinals were sloppy and shot poorly in the first half, their lowest-scoring half of the year (trailing 22-18 at the break), then fell behind by 11 eight minutes into the second half.

But Louisville came back in trademark Pitino-coached fashion: with pressure defense and 3-point shooting. The full-court press flummoxed Georgetown (17-5, 6-4) just enough to take the ball away, and Knowles and his teammates started hitting shots, five different players knocking down six threes in the second half. The last came with 6:14 left, from Mike Marra, and it gave Louisville its first lead since late in the first half, at 54-53.

Yet down the stretch, Georgetown handled the dire straits better than Louisville. It didn't hurt that they starts three seniors, including guard Chris Wright, who scored 16 of his 24 points in the second half and was both as cool and hot as he had to be. His twisting, ducking scoop of a layup with 2:55 left tied the game at 55, and his free throws with 4.4 seconds left provided the winning margin and made Louisville have to hoist up a desperate three-pointer as time expired.

Amidst all of that, Hollis Thompson drained a back-breaking 3-pointer with 2:03 to go to put the Hoyas ahead 58-55, setting up off a perfect backcourt pick by another senior, Julian Vaughn. And junior Jason Clark saved his only two points of the game for the biggest moment, two free throws with 24.7 seconds left to maintain the lead at three.

This, however, was how Louisville handled the final moments, and it bears little resemblance to the multiple heroics pulled off in Storrs on Saturday:

With 4:24 left and with a gift of a chance to push their lead to four after a foul by Nate Lubick on a three attempt, Kyle Kuric missed two of the three free throws.

Then, with 1:25 left and the deficit at three, Knowles missed a three, got his own rebound, missed a runner in the lane, got it back after another Louisville offensive rebound and missed another three; eventually, the Cardinals got a pair of free throws out of their 51-second possession.

Finally, with the Georgetown lead at 60-57 with 24.7 seconds left, sophomore guard Peyton Siva, all but perfect in the clutch in the wins over Connecticut and West Virginia last week, brain-locked briefly. Siva dribbled around trying to find someone for a three, as Pitino jumped, waved and yelled just across the court from him, and with too much time having wound off, finally dumped it to Terrence Jennings for a dunk that cut the lead to one, and would've helped more much earlier in the possession.

All things considered, it was tough to be too harsh with Siva, who had a Jekyl-and-Hyde game, seven turnovers in the first half and one in the second. "I see him,'' he said of Pitino. "I tried to get off a shot, but when I couldn't, I just tried to get it to the big man down low while he was open. I tried to hurry up and score, but they're a good defensive team.''

Siva wasn't accepting compliments for pushing Georgetown to the end: "'Almost' doesn't count. We came back, it was a hard-fought game. But if we lose by one or by 15, we still lost. We could've had the game.''

Georgetown got it, and the reason was simple -- or at least it seemed that way for a team that had pulled off a scintillating road win of its own Saturday at Villanova.
"I think it's our players,'' coach John Thompson III said, reflecting on his team's fifth straight win, all in the Big East, to overcome a 1-4 conference start. "Poised group, went through a difficult portion (of the season) where we weren't making shots. We were getting good shots; they weren't going in. We're past that. We have a veteran group, a good group, unselfish.''

On this night, Wright pointed out, Georgetown kept its head about it when Louisville was pressing themselves back into the game. "We weren't executing as well as we wanted to. We just had to be patient and attack them,'' he said. "Their press is very aggressive; they don't sit back and wait for you to come to them. We wanted to be the aggressor on the press.''

It worked. Now, Pitino can only hope that the lesson of this loss sinks in for his team, which surprisingly has a chance to be a major factor in the Big East and the nation. The consequences are, as it's been proven by so many other teams, that it can sink as quickly as it can rise if it lets chances like Monday slip away.

"In this league,'' he said, "you really don't know where the W's are gonna come. You have to fight for every win.''