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Creative Scoring, High Drama and Zion Williamson: All-Star Takeaways

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On a frigid Friday night in Chicago, before the annual Rising Stars Game, Pau Gasol joined the W.N.B.A. star Sue Bird at midcourt to pay homage to Kobe Bryant and the former N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern.

Gasol, one of Bryant’s favorite former teammates with the Los Angeles Lakers, told the story of how “my older brother Kobe used to say, ‘Do epic things always.’”

“So let’s have an epic weekend,” Gasol urged the United Center crowd.

Epic, in truth, was probably not a realistic target so soon after the deaths of Bryant and Stern, both last month. The leaguewide sense of loss is too great.

Yet the various All-Star events did manage to produce an array of memorable moments amid all the grieving. So as regular-season play resumes, here are my five biggest takeaways from what we saw (and didn’t see) in Chicago:

The Anthony Davis free throw that clinched the All-Star Game was not the biggest problem with the “Elam” scoring system.

The biggest names in the game, playing as hard as they did, is what basketball romantics like myself have always hoped the All-Star Game could be. But “Elam” scoring will become the scourge of the league as soon as such intense play leads to an injury. Sad but true.

Improbable as this sounds, we’re not talking enough about Zion Williamson.

So much happened in Chicago that the rim Williamson bent in Friday night’s Rising Stars Game featuring first- and second-year players was easily forgotten. We repeat: Zion bent the rim in an actual game.

Guard depth in the Western Conference is such that Memphis’s Ja Morant will have to be even better than he has been in a brilliant rookie season to become an All-Star in Year 2, like Doncic and Atlanta’s Trae Young. But I think we can safely say that Williamson, if healthy, is a lock to make it to the big game in Indianapolis next February.

Although his New Orleans Pelicans may run out of time to make up the 5 ½ games by which they trail Morant’s Grizzlies for the final playoff spot in the West, Williamson has been an absolute force in his first 10 regular-season games. In 27.4 minutes per game, Williamson is averaging 22.1 points (on 57.6 percent shooting) and 7.5 rebounds.

Get ready to enjoy him on the All-Star stage for years — health permitting.

I can’t wait for March 25.

The Milwaukee Bucks play host to the Houston Rockets that night. It will be their teams’ first meeting since Milwaukee won at Houston on Oct. 24 in the season opener for both.

It will also be the first time Giannis Antetokounmpo squares off against James Harden after a couple of recent shots from Antetokounmpo about The Beard.

To watch it, click here. To disagree with me, click elsewhere.

For the record: I also loved the modestly snowy Chicago weather for much of the weekend — once we got past a truly arctic Valentine’s Day on Friday — but don’t @ me about that, either.

Michael Jordan’s steadfast insistence on avoiding the spotlight, even for a few minutes, will never make sense to me.

The team Michael Jordan owns played host to the 2019 All-Star Game in Charlotte, N.C. The team Jordan led to six championships in the 1990s just played host to the 2020 All-Star Game in Chicago.

Jordan made the briefest of public appearances last year, when he was essentially considered the All-Star grand marshal, and then stayed completely out of public view this year.

Jordan defenders always tell me, when I bring this stuff up, that I cannot possibly understand how hard it is for His Airness to put himself out there. He’s a very private person, they always say, and makes it his mission to avoid the spotlight.

But Jordan had such direct ties to these last two All-Star Games. This has nothing to do with an ink-stained wretch from the news media like me wanting to interview him; this is about Hornets fans a year ago and Bulls fans worldwide this year who were desperate to see him.

The natural instinct Sunday night, when you saw Scottie Pippen being introduced to a roaring United Center audience, was obviously to ask: Where’s Michael?

One Jordan defender asked me why I haven’t made an issue of the fact that we never saw the Bulls’ team owner Jerry Reinsdorf over the past few days. Fair point. But who is really clamoring to see Reinsdorf except Bulls fans frustrated with the direction of their team?

Mortals like me will never be able to understand what it’s like for Jordan to put himself out there, true, but Barack Obama was an omnipresent figure throughout All-Star festivities. If arrangements can be made to allow the former president of the United States to comfortably serve as such an integral part of the weekend, surely there’s a way for Jordan to let himself be seen for the briefest of glimpses.

The only sure way to see Jordan at the first All-Star Game in Chicago since 1988 was to score an invitation to his exclusive annual party Friday night. Monday is when it really hit me how far behind the scenes he stayed all weekend, because the day after Sunday’s All-Star Game was Jordan’s 57th birthday.

Just as the whole party was leaving town, social media was awash with Jordan tributes and factoids. It’s hard not to be disappointed that Monday’s discourse was as close as the masses got to him.


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The roster still has holes — playmaking beyond James, shooting, wing depth — but Lakers management can certainly celebrate its decision to hire Frank Vogel as coach. Although the search was as messy as possible in the moment, Rob Pelinka’s decision to go with Vogel after talks with Tyronn Lue collapsed — with a strong nudge from the team adviser Kurt Rambis — has been a hit.

Worry all you want about the health of James and Davis, but I try not to spend too much time fretting about injuries that haven’t happened yet. What good does that do?

The Lakers are obviously relying heavily on their two studs, but it’s the way it has to be this season. The Clippers have many of the same worries, too, so it’s not exclusively a Lakers problem.

The Lakers appear to have much stronger team chemistry than outsiders imagined, too, which is also largely attributed to James’s influence. Factor in how James has missed only two of Los Angeles’s 53 games, and it must be said that his 17th N.B.A. season is shaping up to be one of his best.

Q: Who was it named for before? — @joesanders33 from Twitter

Stein: Joe is asking about the N.B.A.’s All-Star Most Valuable Player trophy, which has been named in Kobe Bryant’s honor in the wake of Bryant’s death.

Before the change, which the league made official Saturday, its All-Star M.V. P. trophy did not bear a former player’s name. The N.B.A. finals M.V.P. award was named after Bill Russell in 2009.

Q: How far did N.B.A. players run in each decade? As a 72-year-old lifelong fan of the game, I am frustrated hearing about “load management” and how much harder players worked “back in the day” without any data to back up these claims. Where is the data? — William Briggs (Nalcrest, Fla.)





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Bears Make Signings of Robert Quinn, Germain Ifedi Official – NBC Chicago

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The Chicago Bears have continued to confirm the signings
they made early in NFL free agency, as the team announced contracts with
offensive lineman Germain Ifedi and linebacker Robert Quinn.

Both signings, previously reported when the new NFL league
year began in mid-March, were both made official on Wednesday.

Quinn, a two-time Pro Bowler who most recently played for
the Dallas Cowboys, agreed to a five-year contract with the Bears. Ifedi, let
go by the Seattle Seahawks after the conclusion of the 2019 season, signed a
one-year deal with the Bears.

Quinn is joining a dynamic Bears front seven that is one of
the best in the NFL. Last season, Quinn started 14 games for the Cowboys,
racking up 11.5 sacks in those contests for Dallas. He also had 22 quarterback
hurries and 13 tackles-for-loss, and according to the Bears it was his fourth
career season with double-digit sacks.

Ifedi, a first-round pick of the Seahawks in 2016, will hope
to bolster an offensive line that struggled at times during the 2019 season. He
primarily played right tackle for the Seahawks last season, and will be one of
the Bears’ main candidates to replace Kyle Long, who retired from football
after the 2019 campaign.





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Podcast: Jim Jackson, Marc Zumoff, Tom McCarthy talk careers in sports, and more

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Going End to End today are NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Brooke Destra, Katie Emmer, Taryn Hatcher and Jordan Hall.

The topic: Predicting who wins the Flyers’ 2019-20 Pelle Lindbergh Memorial Trophy as most improved player.

Destra

When it comes to most improved from last season, Travis Konecny is the first that comes to mind. He didn’t have a poor 2018-19 season by any means but when looking back and the leaps and bounds he has made since then, it just makes sense to award him the Pelle Lindbergh Memorial Trophy. 

Before the season started, I noted that Konecny was the most important puzzle piece for a successful year and he has continued to prove that with every game played. 

Konecny bettered his two-way game, cleaned up his puck work in the neutral zone and can be on a line with just about anyone and still find a way to drive play. He’s grown every aspect of his game and now leads the team in points, as well. 

Not to mention, he’s also a pest to play against, a ton of fun to watch, made his first All-Star appearance back in January … and he’s only 23 years old. 

Emmer

Konecny is the most improved player.

Fans were expecting a breakout season from Konecny and he’s having it. With 61 points through 66 games, he’s already 12 points past his previous career high of 49 points in 82 games last year. 

Konecny’s average ice time has gone up by almost two minutes more than last season and he has continued to dominate in his 5-on-5 play, while his presence on the Flyers’ power-play units has grown as he leads the team in man advantage assists with 18.

The Flyers’ 2015 first-rounder obviously had talent from the start, but this season he really blossomed on the score sheet and grew that confidence Flyers fans had certainly seen hints of before, but now see it on another level. 

His confidence could have spiked for many reasons: his offensive success, his coaching staff and new linemates and maybe even that six-year, $33 million contract he inked at the start of the season.

Whatever it was, that confidence is hopefully here to stay. Konecny certainly improved the most this season and I think Flyers fans have plenty to look forward to out of this 23-year-old for the next five-plus years.  

Hatcher

The Flyers have quite a few players who have taken the next step in their game this season, but Scott Laughton deserves this one in my opinion.

Statistically speaking, Laughton played 82 games last season, netting 12 goals and tallying 20 assists. After battling through two injuries this year (finger, groin), he’s still managed to pass that goal total with 13 in just 49 games so far in 2019-20. Laughton has also jumped from a minus-11 rating last year to a plus-13. He’s a key piece of the Flyers’ significantly improved penalty kill.  

Not to mention, when Alain Vigneault has needed to shake up lines, Laughton has been able to find success as a top-six player. But, when called upon to contribute in the bottom six, he’s assumed the role without issue. Laughton still finds ways to distribute the puck well and produce with a different cast of players.  

Hall

With Konecny making such an important jump for the Flyers, he’ll rightfully be the favorite for this award and should even be in consideration for the Bobby Clarke Trophy.

However, Oskar Lindblom won’t be counted out for most improved. Don’t be surprised if some teammates cast their votes for the 23-year-old forward — and those votes would be deserved.

Before being diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma during mid-December, Lindblom was thriving in his biggest role yet, scoring 11 goals and 18 points through 30 games. He was projected to finish with 30 goals after a promising rookie season in which he recorded 17 while playing fewer minutes.

Lindblom, who continues to undergo treatment, quickly won over Vigneault with his smarts and skill. His improvements were significant and evident.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

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‘It’s Just So Devastating’: Olympic Delay Is Especially Hard for Gymnasts

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“I was never doing it for them anyway,” she said. “I’m just playing it by ear. I have to listen to my mind and body and go into the gym and see how I feel.”

Skinner is also listening to her body, and the two gymnasts have commiserated about their aging bodies in the past — including just last week when they texted each other and said they both dreaded a possible postponement because, to paraphrase, they are old and their bodies hurt.

To compete at the Olympics, Skinner would need to weather another year of wear and tear, with achy knees and stinging elbows. And taking another year off from the University of Utah might mean that Skinner’s N.C.A.A. eligibility for her final year of college gymnastics would expire. She has been looking forward to her senior year, which would not be nearly as intense as her Olympic training and, frankly, much easier on her body and more fun.

Holding on for Tokyo next summer also would mean putting off her real life, yet again. She married Jonas Harmer in November and they recently were looking for a starter home in Utah.

These days, nothing is unfolding the way Skinner had expected. Her best friend’s bridal shower didn’t happen last week because of concerns over the coronavirus — the partygoers instead pulled up in their cars, handed their gifts over, waved and left. The bachelorette party that Skinner, a bridesmaid, had planned didn’t happen, either. Skinner was upset that she couldn’t even attend a casual gathering for the bride, fearing that she had been exposed to the virus through her parents or, possibly, relatives who recently had taken a cruise.

She has leaned on her husband and other relatives to vent her stress and anger over the situation. Her mental trainer, Clay Frost, has also helped her refocus when her mind starts spinning.

She says a few key phrases, like “be the best you can be,” and punches her hand to snap her back. Or, to put things in perspective, she makes lists of the things she can and can’t control.



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