Can the Kings snap their record-long playoff drought?
Good morning, I’m Dan Gartland. I’m playing through the pain to bring you this newsletter after slicing off the tip of my finger with a potato peeler while making dinner last night.
In today’s SI:AM:
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Checking in on the NBA
Between the World Cup, holidays, College Football Playoff and end of the NFL regular season, I feel like I haven’t been paying close enough attention to the NBA. So let’s take a look at a few of the story lines around the league that I should be keeping an eye on going forward.
The Kings’ playoff pursuit
After the Mariners reached last year’s baseball postseason, the Kings now have the longest playoff drought in major North American men’s sports. Their last playoff appearance was 16 years ago, but Sacramento is well on its way to breaking that streak. The Kings are in fourth place in the West at 22–18, thanks to new coach Mike Brown and two trades it pulled off within the past year. The first, made before last year’s deadline, brought Domantas Sabonis to Sacramento in exchange for guard Tyrese Haliburton. Then, over the summer, the Kings got Kevin Huerter from the Hawks. With those two and rookie first-round pick Keegan Murray, three of the Kings’ starting five weren’t on the team this time last year. But the consistency of that group has been key for Sacramento. All five starters (De’Aaron Fox and Harrison Barnes are the other two) have played in at least 37 of the team’s 40 games this season. (For more on the Kings, Chris Herring wrote in November why he thinks they’re the most fun team in the NBA.)
They also own what has become the meme of this NBA season due to the ray of purple light that shoots up from the top of Golden 1 Center following Kings victories, leading fans to chant, “Light the beam!”
How will the Nets respond to Kevin Durant’s injury?
The Nets were a mess during the first quarter of the season. They started out 9–11 but have won 18 of their last 20 to improve to 27–13, good for second in the East. That momentum might soon come to a crashing halt, though. Kevin Durant injured his knee in Sunday’s game against the Heat. He reportedly has a sprained MCL that will be reevaluated in two weeks. Durant’s injury is obviously a major blow to the Nets, but the team has the pieces to make his absence more manageable. While he’s out, this will be Kyrie Irving’s team to lead. As Rohan Nadkarni points out, the Nets have played very well this season when Irving is on the floor and KD isn’t. Role players like Joe Harris and Royce O’Neale will have to step up, too, but this team has enough talent to keep its head above water until Durant comes back. The hot streak that preceded Durant’s injury built a nice cushion in the standings and learning to play without your star player can be beneficial when he does return.
Trade deadline decisions
The trade deadline is only a few weeks away (Feb. 9), and teams are facing difficult decisions about whether to add pieces in hopes of making a run for the playoffs or blow it all up. It’s clear the Lakers have to do something to help out LeBron James, but the calculus is more difficult for other teams hovering around the play-in cutoff.
The Bulls have taken a serious step backward after finishing sixth in the conference last season and are currently hanging on to the last play-in spot in the East at 19–23, but going full fire sale seems too drastic. Nadkarni thinks they should move Alex Caruso at the deadline and hope the players they get in return can provide a spark.
The Raptors have similarly fallen off (fifth in the East last year to 11th this season) and have a couple of trade targets on their roster. Any number of teams would be thrilled to have Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby. Nadkarni thinks the better move is to trade Siakam, who’s five years older than Anunoby, allowing the 25-year-old forward and the 21-year-old Scottie Barnes to be the foundation of Toronto’s next era. Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. can opt out of their contracts after the season and could be attractive trade targets as well.
The best of Sports Illustrated
Infiltrating the Bills Mafia at the 50-year-old venue now called Highmark Stadium, the neutral observer feels like a real-life mob informant. The man not wearing Zubaz, a Steve Tasker jersey, face paint and a horned helmet from the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes risks looking conspicuous, especially if he’s not two-fisting tallboys of Labatt Blue Light at 9 on a Sunday morning. When a man emerges from a port-a-potty in Lot 7 wearing a full Bills uniform, replete with visored helmet, it’s the guy he holds the door for—in khakis and a quarter-zip—who appears to be attending a costume party.
The top five…
… things I saw last night:
5. ESPN announcer Jimmy Dykes’s offering some fried food to a ref.
4. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer’s reaction to drinking Dasani water.
3. Moussa Djenepo’s long-range goal in Southampton’s 2–0 Carabao Cup win over Manchester City.
2. Ja Morant’s dunk on Jakob Poeltl.
1. Connor McDavid’s spin move to set up a backhand goal.
One of the best games in women’s basketball history occurred on this day in 1991, with an ACC-record 11,520 fans in attendance. Which two schools were involved? (Hint: The coach of the current No. 1 team in the country had a triple double.)
- NC State and Virginia
- Duke and North Carolina
- Maryland and Clemson
- Georgia Tech and Wake Forest
Yesterday’s SIQ: On this day in 2004, the Eagles converted on a long, long fourth down with just over a minute to play in regulation against the Packers to stay alive en route to an overtime victory in the NFC divisional playoffs. What was the down and distance on Donovan McNabb’s pass to Freddie Mitchell?
Answer: Fourth-and-26. The play is famous enough to have its own Wikipedia page.
After losing in the NFC championship game in both of the previous two seasons, the Eagles were on the verge of another disappointing playoff exit against the Packers. Philadelphia, the No. 1 seed, trailed 17–14 with time ticking down in the fourth quarter. On second-and-10 on the first play after the two-minute warning, Donovan McNabb was sacked for a loss of 16 yards. His third-down pass was incomplete; McNabb needed a miracle to keep the Eagles alive. On fourth-and-26, Freddie Mitchell found a space in between three Green Bay defenders, and McNabb delivered a perfect pass to pick up the first down. That led to a 37-yard field goal by David Akers that sent the game to overtime. After Brett Favre threw an interception on the Packers’ first play of overtime, the Eagles marched down the field for another field goal to win it and advance to their third straight conference title game. (They lost to the Panthers.)
Incredibly, that wasn’t the only clutch fourth-and-20-plus conversion of that NFL season. On the final day of the regular season, the Vikings needed to beat the lowly Cardinals (3–12 entering the game) to win the NFC North and make the playoffs. On the final play of the game, on fourth-and-25, Josh McCown threw a 27-yard touchdown to Nate Poole that gave Arizona the win. Vikings radio announcer Paul Allen’s call of “No! No! The Cardinals have knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs” was an instant classic.
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