Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Poor officiating, play calling costs Niners second straight

For the first time since the start of the Jim Harbaugh era in San Francisco, the 49ers are below .500. Their 1-2 record could easily be 3-0 if not for two key factors that have haunted the 49ers in each of their last two games -- penalties and the disappearance of the Niners offense that is still seeking its first score in the fourth quarter this season. For Colin Kaepernick and company, the story has been: play dominantly in the first two quarters, only to roll over and play dead in the second half where they've been outscored 52-3 through the first three weeks of the season. This is evident to the +43 point differential the Niners own in the first half of games where they've outscored opponents, 59-16.

After allowing a field goal on Arizona's game opening drive, Kaepernick led the 49er offense on consecutive 80-yard touchdown drives in each of their first two possessions by finding Michael Crabtree in the end zone for one and handing it off to rookie running back Carlos Hyde on the other. San Francisco took a 14-6 lead into the locker room at the half where they would appear to leave their offense and the ability to score like they've done so often this year. Even without one of his favorite targets in Pro-Bowl tight-end Vernon Davis, Colin Kaepernick managed to have a nice game throwing the ball, completing 29 of 37 pass attempts for 245 yards and a career-high 78.4 completion percentage, but it came at a cost. The 49ers QB ran the ball a total of 12 times, three times more than running backs Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde combined and as a result, abandoned a key component that the San Francisco offense thrives on and is when the 49ers are at their best. Just the latest not so brilliant decision by Niners offensive-coordinator Greg Roman. All-time 49ers rusher Frank Gore who saw only six carries for 10 yards on the afternoon, watched much of the game from the sidelines and was none to please about the team's pass-happy offense and chose not to talk to the media following Sunday's game.
And then there was the officiating which for the second straight week proved to be a thorn in the side of the 49ers who lead the league in penalties and were penalized another nine times for 107 yards. One penalty that proved to be costly among the countless other bogus calls called on defense, was one called against Niners receiver Anquan Boldin who was tacked for unnecessary roughness which knocked San Francisco out of the red zone. They eventually had to settle for a field goal attempt which was then blocked, preventing the Niners from scoring in the fourth quarter for the third time in as many games this season as Jim Harbaugh's team was outscored 17-0 in the second half. A number of other penalties were called on multiple clean hits on the quarterback that were called otherwise, giving Arizona good field position throughout much of the game. Filling in for the injured Carson Palmer, Cardinals backup QB Drew Stanton logged his second straight game without a turnover, throwing for 244 yards and a pair of TD's, both to rookie wide-out John Brown in the 23-14 win. For Arizona who enters Week 4 atop the NFC West at 3-0 and with a BYE week, the victory snaps a four-game losing streak to the Niners and marks just their second win vs San Francisco in 11 tries.

Week 4 Preview: Turning the page to next week, the 49ers return home to Levi's Stadium where they hope to win their first game in their new home. It won't come easy, however, as Jim Harbaugh's club welcomes Chip Kelly's 3-0 Philadelphia Eagles. Having been a shell of their first half selves in all three games this season, San Francisco can ill afford another performance in Week 4 as it just so happens that Philly is the best second half team in the league thus far, having outscored opponents by 50-points after halftime. Oh and just to throw it out there, referee Ed Hochuli who will be in charge of officiating next week's game will be leading an officiating crew that averages 19.5 penalties a game this year... One name the 49ers will have a close eye on entering the game will be their very own Vernon Davis who sat out of Week 3's loss with an injured left ankle. Without Davis in the lineup, the 49ers are 0-4 under coach Harbaugh.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

49ers fold late, spoiling home-opener vs Bears

The Chicago Bears who had not beaten the San Francisco 49ers on the road since their lone Super Bowl season in 1985, had the odds stacked against them after falling behind early on Sunday night as the 49ers kicked off the grand opening of their new home -- Levi's Stadium. Facing the Bears for the first time since his coming out party in Week 11 of 2012 when he shined in place of the injured Alex Smith on Monday Night Football to eventually win over the starting QB job, Colin Kaepernick followed up a flawless Week 1 performance vs the Cowboys with one of his ugliest outings yet. Out of the gates, however, the Niners had all things working for them as they forced a three and out on Chicago's opening possession before blocking a punt which set up an easy touchdown as Kaepernick connected in the end zone with Michael Crabtree.

Hoping to crash the party, things didn't look good early for Bears QB Jay Cutler and company as Chicago was unable to put anything on the board offensively for almost the entire first half. A Phil Dawson field goal and a rushing touchdown from Frank Gore gave the 49ers a 17-0 lead as San Francisco threatened to take a big lead into the locker room at the half despite two turnovers by Kaepernick. It took them until the last minute of the first half, but the Bears were able to wake up on offense and exploit San Francisco's rookie cornerback Jimmy Ward who was outmatched by the much taller and stronger Brandon Marshall as the Pro Bowl wide-out came down with three of Jay Cutler's four touchdown passes on the evening. 
A second field goal by Phil Dawson to open up the start of the second half gave San Francisco a 20-7 lead. But where Cutler excelled in the second half, showing poise and patience, Kaepernick crumbled. The Bears, who entered the game with a record of 3-140-1 all-time when trailing by more than 16 points on the road, rallied behind a pair of 4th quarter turnovers by the 49ers QB to score 21 unanswered-points in the second half to pull out the comeback win, 28-20. By no means did Jay Cutler have a monstrous day throwing the ball as he finished with only 176 yards passing, but he managed to play mistake-free football and capitalized on good field position whether it was created by penalties (there were 26 of them overall, 16 by SF) or on turnovers. Kaepernick, who was near perfect in the season-opener, was anything but in prime time as he finished with 248 passing yards, 64 yards rushing, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions and 1 fumble.

After allowing more than 100-yards rushing to Dallas' DeMarco Murray in Week 1, the 49er defense were lights out in defending the run, holding the Bears' Pro-Bowl running back Matt Forte to only 21-yards on 12 carries and even did a good job in containing Chicago's stellar receiving tandem in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery who combined for only 95 yards on 8 receptions. But it's where three of those passes hauled in by Marshall were caught. Bears tight-end Martellus Bennett also caught a touchdown pass from Cutler, spoiling the debut of Levi's Stadium.
Week 3 Preview: With little time to lick their wounds and prepare for their next game, the 49ers will take a trip to the desert where they'll meet the (2-0) Arizona Cardinals who currently sit in first place in the NFC West with both San Francisco and Seattle being tagged with losses in Week 2. Despite the absence of Quarterback Carson Palmer who will also sit out vs the 49ers in Week 3 while nursing a shoulder injury, Arizona had no trouble on the road where they defeated the New York Giants, 25-14 behind backup QB Drew Stanton. Hoping to get back in the win column, the 49ers will look to make Stanton's second start of the 2014 season a rough one. 

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Monday, September 8, 2014

49ers Make Home in Dallas, Rout Cowboys 28-17

With a sub-par preseason in the books and an offseason that saw multiple suspensions issued, the San Francisco 49ers were more than ready to get the 2014 regular season underway. Their first test would be a visit to Jerry's World to take on Tony Romo and the Cowboys in Dallas where the 49er faithful made their presence felt, filling nearly 40 percent of the stadium according to some reports. Entering the game, many believed that with the 49ers depleted defense as some put it, that Romo and the Dallas offense could take advantage and exploit an area that San Francisco has excelled at since the start of the Jim Harbaugh era. That would be far from the case, however, as the Niner defense looked just fine in the season-opener with a few kinks to address. 

What would ultimately be a long day for Tony Romo and the Cowboys offense, started off on a bad note from the get-go as Dallas was called for a false start penalty on the first play of the game. It would be a sign of bad things to come as 49ers linebacker Dan Skuta stripped Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray of the ball just two players later as cornerback Chris Culliver recovered the loose ball and returned it 35-yards for the easy score. Dallas' offense would put together a more successful drive their second time around with Romo leading his team down the field for a field goal to make it 7-3 in favor of San Francisco, but it would be the lone bright spot for the Cowboys in the first half and would be the closest they'd get on the scoreboard the rest of the game. A pair of first quarter interceptions thrown by Romo would dig too big of a hole for the Cowboys to climb out of as 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick capitalized on both turnovers by finding his tight-end Vernon Davis in the end zone in what would be a flawless first quarter for Kaepernick who recently signed a new multi-year contract. 
San Francisco would need only four plays on offense to light up the scoreboard for 21 first quarter points, the most points in an opening-quarter since December 18, 1995 when they hung a 21-spot versus the Minnesota Vikings. With second year Pro Bowl safety Eric Reid hauling in the first Romo interception and Patrick Willis coming up with the second, Parrish Cox who was called upon to fill in for Chris Culliver who left the game with a concussion, would intercept Romo at the start of the second quarter for a third and final time. More sloppy offense by the Cowboys would result in points for the Niners as rookie running back Carlos Hyde scored his first career touchdown with a 4-yard run to give his team a 28-3 lead heading into the half. The 49ers would fail to put anymore points on the board with kicker Phil Dawson missing from 37-yards out, but they would have all that they needed. 

Taking their foot off the gas on defense, the 49ers allowed touchdowns in the third and fourth quarter to help Dallas pull within 11 where the game would end, 28-17. Colin Kaepernick who finished the game with 201 yards passing and 2 touchdowns, completed 16 of 23 pass attempts while playing mistake-free football. Tony Romo on the other hand threw for 281 yards with 3 interceptions and 1 touchdown and was unable to find his top two targets in Dez Bryant and Jason Witten who combined, tallied only 69 yards on 6 receptions and were kept out of the end zone. DeMarco Murray ran for over 100-yards and a touchdown, but it was his early miscue that prevented him from having a phenomenal afternoon. Anquan Boldin led all receivers with 99 yards on 8 receptions and both Carlos Hyde and Frank Gore proved effective in the run game. With 66 yards on the day, Gore became only the 29th player in NFL history to rush for 10,000 yards in a career. 

Week 2 Preview: For Jim Harbaugh's team who improved to 4-0 in season-openers, Week 2 will see San Francisco host the Chicago Bears on Sunday Night Football in the 49ers brand new stadium -- Levis Field. Chicago (0-1), expected by some to win the NFC North this season, is coming off an upset loss at home in overtime to Buffalo in the season-opener. 

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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Niners 2014 Preview

With the NFL's preseason officially in the books, the San Francisco 49ers can now focus their attention on the regular season and the Dallas Cowboys who they'll be facing in the season-opener this Sunday as the Quest for Six begins once again. Entering his fourth season at the helm of the Niners, head coach Jim Harbaugh enters the year with the highest winning-percentage among active coaches at 36-11-1 during the regular season. Having coached his team to the NFC title game in each of his first three seasons in the city by the bay, making it to a Super Bowl two seasons ago and coming up short while losing to the eventual Super Bowl champs all three years, Harbaugh and company is hoping that this will be the year that they get it done.

With defense being the focal point for the 49ers since the start of the Harbaugh era, its the offense that created all the buzz over the offseason. And after signing quarterback Colin Kaepernick to a new six-year, $126 Million contract ($61M guaranteed), could you expect anything different? Already with a number of viable targets to throw to for the 26-year old QB, 49ers GM Trent Baalke wasted little time before making sure the guy who he and coach Harbaugh believes to be their franchise quarterback for many years to come, was spoiled with another receiver. On Draft night, the 49ers acquired wide-out Stevie Johnson from the Buffalo Bills in exchange for a conditional fourth round pick in next year's Draft. Another pair of receivers will who be joining the team this year is rookie Bruce Ellington who the 49ers took in the 4th round of May's Draft out of South Carolina and the return of former 49er Brandon Lloyd.

Though Kaepernick has already shown an unparalleled talent which makes him equally as dangerous both running and throwing the ball, coach Harbaugh believes he can be even better and that a breakout on top of what he's already accomplished is on the rise. Then again, why wouldn't he, granted Kaepernick was the first offensive player coach Harbaugh ever drafted in the NFL when the 49ers took him in the second round, 36th overall in 2011. There's no doubt, however, that the Niners offense is at its best when their run game is clicking on all cylinders. And with Frank Gore showing no signs of slowing down last year, rushing for over 1,000 yards for the third consecutive season and being named to his fifth Pro-Bowl, we can expect much of the same from San Francisco's ground attack. Gore's workload might not need to be as heavy this season, however, with backup running back Carlos Hyde showing during the preseason that he'll be ready when called upon. The rookie out of Ohio State was selected in the second round, 57th overall and was the top ranked running back on most boards in April's Draft. Marcus Lattimore who sat out his rookie season all of last year is currently on the PUP list and is hoping to make his NFL debut this season as well, leaving LaMichael James' role in question.

As good as San Francisco's defense has been in each of the last three seasons, they'll be without a number of key players when the season kicks off come Sunday. NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Glenn Dorsey and Ray McDonald (pending suspension) are just a few of the names Vic Fangio's defense will have to do without for the first half of the 2014 season. Bowman, who's still recovering from tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee during the NFC Championship, isn't expected to be ready until around Week 9. Glenn Dorsey who suffered a torn biceps is expected to miss at least eight games while Aldon Smith faces a nine game suspension for his involvement in an incident at an L.A. airport and a DUI charge dating back to 2013. Meanwhile, Ray McDonald was the first player to be hit with the NFL's newly adopted rules against domestic violence which will cause him to miss six games. But with his suspension still pending, McDonald appears to be in line to start the season-opener. Though it may sound like the 49ers have a depleted lineup defensively, it just means the next group of guys will have to step up. Rookie linebacker Chris Borland who impressed the coaching staff during the 49ers preseason finale victory over the Texans will be called upon to fill in for the injured Bowman, while Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial are next in line to fill the void left by Smith and Dorsey.

There was also some positive news just in time for the regular season as guard Alex Boone who was displeased with his current contract, ended his holdout with a new 2-year deal. Boone is definitely a player coach Harbaugh wanted to have on the field given he's started every game in each of the past two seasons.

With San Francisco's schedule none to easy this season based off of the defenses they'll be facing in their own division alone which includes the always friendly trip to Seattle and road games @ Denver and New Orleans just to name a few, I see the 49ers finishing the season with the same exact record they did a year ago at 12-4. Whether or not that'll be enough to dethrone the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks from the NFC West throne is anyone's guess. But regardless if they have to make the playoffs by way of a division winner or with a wild card berth, I'm sticking to what I predicted immediately following February's Super Bowl by predicting a 49ers-Colts Super Bowl. The Chargers are another team I was strongly considering and could very well represent the AFC in the big game as well. 

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

San Francisco Giants Month in Review - August

With consecutive sub .500 win percentages for the San Francisco Giants in June and July, Bruce Bochy's ball club would need to step it up in the month of August if they planned on making a true playoff push down the stretch. Backed by stellar starting pitching and a hint of explosive offense demonstrated in their three game sweep at the end of the month versus the visiting Milwaukee Brewers, the Giants did just that, posting an overall record of 16-13 to round out the month of August. With most of San Francisco's success coming on the road as of late, it was their home of AT&T Park which witnessed the G-Men close out the last full month of the MLB calendar on a strong note.

Aside from splitting a short two-game series vs the Chicago White Sox, the Giants won all three series in the city by the bay, taking two of three against the Phillies and three of four from the Rockies before completing a three game sweep of the Brew Crew to win 9 of 12 games at Home. Their time spent away from home wasn't as successful, however, as San Francisco dropped two of three in both Milwaukee and Washington while being on the receiving end of a three-game sweep at the hands of Kansas City. Splitting four games in Queens against the Mets and four on the north side of Chicago vs the Cubbies resulted in a 7-10 record on the road for the orange and black. But the Giants of the last week or so has looked a lot more like the team that jumped out to a 9 1/2 game division lead back in May with both pitching and timely hitting clicking on all cylinders. 
The Giants, who currently stand at 74-62 closed out the month of August winners of six straight and right back in the hunt for the NL West crown, only 2.5 games back of the rival Dodgers who they'll get to play six more times this season. After falling as many as 5 games back in the division, a red-hot Buster Posey at the plate and Madison Bumgarner on the mound has helped lead the Giants in climbing right back into the thick of things and close the gap while maintaining sole possession of the number one wild card spot. Collectively, the Giants starting pitching staff has been sensational as of late, boasting a 1.22 ERA, 0.60 WHIP and a 42 to 3 strikeout to walk ratio over their last five games heading into the weekend. Leading the way once again was Giants ace Madison Bumgarner who posted a league best in strikeouts for the month with 56 and 1.57 ERA while finishing 4-1 in six starts. MadBum even flirted with history when he took a no-hitter into the 8th inning. And though Bumgarner made a strong case to likely win his second NL Pitcher of the Month Award this season, he isn't the only one in a Giants uniform who's been dealing lately.

Jake Peavy who the Giants acquired near last month's trade deadline, has won 3 of his last 4 starts after logging only one win in 20 starts with Boston and has a 1.26 ERA in that span. It wasn't pure dominance for everyone, however, as arguably the Giants' most popular hurler saw a demotion to the bullpen. After appearing to have found his groove again, making several consecutive strong starts following his historic feat in June when he tossed his second career no-hitter, Tim Lincecum would be moved to the relief corps after struggling with an ERA over 9 in his last six starts. But that's not to discredit the man who was awarded Lincecum's spot in the rotation as Yusmeiro Petit who filled in at times for the injured Matt Cain, has pitched brilliantly of late, setting a Major League record by retiring 46 consecutive batters. In his latest outing, Petit retired the first eight Colorado Rockies batters he faced, surpassing the previous mark of 45 consecutive batters retired held by Mark Buehrle in 2009.
August wasn't all about pitching, though, as Bruce Bochy saw his ball club put up double-digits three times in the month, including twice over the weekend vs Milwaukee after failing to hit the double-digit mark in both June and July. The month of August also saw one of the true rarities in baseball when a game in Chicago against the Cubs was halted due to mother nature, causing a four-hour rain delay. But it's what the Wrigley Field grounds crew was unable to do that caught the attention of Giants skipper Bruce Bochy who decided to protest the game that was eventually called and ruled a 2-0 win for the Cubs after 5 1/2 innings. The Wrigley Field grounds crew mishandled the tarp when trying to save the field from getting drenched in the downpour and did little afterwards to try and make the field playable. This would result in only the second successful protest in MLB to be upheld since 1986. And though the Giants would eventually lose the game by a score of 2-1, it's an incident that won't be forgotten anytime soon for Giants fans.

As usual this time of year in baseball, the month of September is sure to be a treat with teams making call-ups and the down to the wire pennant races that are sure to unfold. With a pair of series on the road against the Colorado Rockies and Detroit Tigers respectively to kick off the month of September, the Giants will return home to face the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers. A nine-game road trip within the division versus the D-Backs, Padres and Dodgers will round out the last of the Giants' regular season games away from San Francisco before finishing the season at home against San Diego. All in all, the upcoming month is a favorable one for the Giants and could help propel them back into the top spot out west in preparation for the Postseason.

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Saturday, August 2, 2014

San Francisco Giants Month in Review - July

With the San Francisco Giants struggling to maintain the dominance they opened the season with for the first time in June, the month of July saw much of the same. Though they would finish the dog days of July by going 12-14, winning two more games than they did the previous month, manager Bruce Bochy would witness his ball club boast a sub .500 record for a second consecutive month. However, the team would continue their winning ways on the road where the Giants have clearly been more productive at the plate, winning 7 of 12 games. As for the friendly confines of AT&T Park, the Giants' home would be anything but friendly to the orange and black as they finished with 5-wins and 9-losses.

After stumbling into the All-Star break with series losses against the St. Louis Cardinals and Oakland A's and wins against two of their mediocre division rivals in San Diego and Arizona, the Giants bounced back by highlighting a successful road trip out east with two wins in three games in Miami and by taking three of four in Philly. But the G-Men would fail to bring that magic back home with them as they were swept at AT&T against the archrival Dodgers in a three-game series before avoiding nearly being swept by Pittsburgh. The sluggish home stand resulted in the Giants falling as many as three games behind L.A. in the NL West. And with injuries to Matt Cain and Joe Panik as well as the uncertainty revolving veteran second baseman Marco Scutaro, Giants general manager Brian Sabean was forced to make a move.
Hoping one team's trash would be another team's treasure, Sabean signed second baseman Dan Uggla to a Minor League deal. But Uggla, who was released earlier this year by the Atlanta Braves, would be called up much earlier than anticipated as Panik went down with an injury. The acquisition would prove to be a short lived experiment as Uggla failed to log a single hit in his 11 at-bats while also committing a handful of errors. With Matt Cain likely to undergo surgery to remove bone chips in his throwing elbow which would sideline him for the remainder of the season, Sabean went out and acquired Jake Peavy from the Boston Red Sox in exchange for Minor League pitchers Heath Hembree and Edwin Escobar. Having spent the better half of his eight seasons with the San Diego Padres under Giants skipper Bruce Bochy, few pitchers in the game today know the NL West as well as Peavy where he won the NL Cy Young Award in 2007 as a Triple Crown winner.

Peavy, a victim of little to no run support this season (received two runs or fewer in support in each of his last 8 starts) while with the Red Sox, went 1-9 with the defending World Series champs this year while posting a 4.72 ERA. But returning to pitch in the division he grew up in and had plenty of success, could result in a second half rebound. The 33-year old Peavy is a 3-time All-Star that plays with his emotions on his sleeve and will supply a fiery mentality while providing stability to the rotation. Perhaps the most important note of all is that he's been known as a Dodger killer throughout his career with a record of 14-2 and an ERA of 2.21 against L.A. That wouldn't be the case in his Giants debut, however, as the Dodgers tagged him for three runs in six innings in a losing effort.
Many thought San Francisco would be a bit more active at this year's July 31st trade deadline but instead the Giants braintrust decided to stay put following the acquisition for Peavy while adding that, "Bad deals were to be made." And while Sabean has been known as somewhat of a genius for making key deals at or near the deadline, only time will tell whether or not the same could be said regarding his latest transaction. Perhaps the highlight of the month just because of its rarity would belong to Tim Lincecum who stole the spotlight as the Giants' headline for the month of June as well. After continuing his brilliance with a stellar first half of July, the Freak treated fans to a bizarre sighting they aren't used to seeing as Timmy recorded his first career save, becoming only the 9th pitcher since 1969 with a no-hitter and a save in the same season. With ugly outings in each of his last two starts, Timmy and the rest of his pitching mates will be counted on to pick it up the rest of the way if the Giants plan to fend off the rival Dodgers for the top spot in the West. The Giants' bullpen, meanwhile, was lights out in the month of July, boasting the best ERA and opponent average against in the NL.

The Giants will kick off a 10-game road trip to begin the month of August with a trip to New York to face the Mets and stops at Milwaukee and Kansas City as the NL Central division leading Brewers and playoff hopeful Royals look to make a push for the postseason. A homestand vs the White Sox and Phillies will take place before the G-Men hit the road again to meet with the Cubs and Nationals before returning home and rounding out the month of August with a series vs the Rockies and Brewers at AT&T Park.

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Friday, August 1, 2014

USA Men's Basketball takes a Blow

What was supposed to be a showcasing of some of the best talent the world has to offer on Friday at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, soon turned into an event in a state of shock as one of the game's best young stars was hauled out onto a stretcher. During the fourth quarter of the USA Men's Basketball Team's Blue vs White scrimmage, fans and players witnessed one of the most horrific sports injuries in recent memory when Paul George of the Indiana Pacers tried making a play on a fastbreak layup by Houston's James Harden. With all of his momentum on his right leg, George came down hard at an angle as his foot met with the stanchion near the bottom of the basket, leaving his leg nowhere to go but down as footage of the gruesome injury showed. Footage of the injury left us turning our heads and looking elsewhere, reminiscent of those suffered by such athletes as Joe Theismann, Shaun Livingston, Kevin Ware and more recently Anderson Silva of the UFC.

George suffered a compound fracture to the tibia and fibula in his right leg and was rushed to a nearby hospital. Being in the building to watch the game and witnessing the injury firsthand gave a different picture opposed to what fans may have seen watching the game on television. With my seats being in the upper deck and everything happening all at once, it was hard to immediately make out exactly what had happened and to who. But the immediate reaction from the fans sitting courtside and the players on the bench, many of which were hiding their faces in towels, gave you an idea that it was something serious. With the game being delayed for several minutes as members of the coaching staff and medical personnel rushed to the scene, any hopes we had of a player just being shaken up were erased once the stretcher came rolling out. As a majority of the arena was left still wondering who had gotten hurt, I began questioning why an instant replay of the incident had not been shown on the jumbotron and after later seeing the footage in slow-motion, I now know why. And in case you've yet to see the footage, I suggest you do so with caution if you're easily squeamish.
With chants of "U.S.A" being poured onto the court by fans showing their support, it wasn't long before players and coaches from both benches met near mid-court for prayer which coach Mike Krzyzewski then followed by addressing the fans that the exhibition game had come to an end despite the 9 minutes and 33 seconds remaining on the game clock. It would be a classy move by Coach K and one that all of the fans that I came in contact with fully understood which was ultimately the right decision in respect for George and his family. With players and fans all taking to Twitter after the incident to express their sympathy and wish him a speedy recovery, George himself took to the social media site a few hours later just before undergoing surgery to thank all those that have wished him well and said he'd be back and better than ever.

Rapid Reaction - While the injury to Paul George is very unfortunate, there's no denying that it'll change the way players look at competing at the international level and even more so in exhibition games like the one that took place tonight. Not to mention the team owners and general managers who cringe at the thought of these exhibition games players decide to play in after being signed to multi-Million dollar contracts. Could this be the beginning of the end for USA Basketball and the NBA's brightest stars that choose to play or is the privilege of playing for their country a big enough honor to keep the game's biggest names interested? 
Though there's no denying the injury is a freak accident, it's obvious how unsafe the base of the basket is at Thomas & Mack where the UNLV Basketball team calls home. With the stanchion of the basket being several feet closer to the baseline than those that players in the NBA are used to, how it passed inspection and was cleared for use is beyond me. What's sad is that it takes something like this to occur before we can question whether or not the base of the basket is safe. In other words, it was an accident waiting to happen and it just so happened to take place on one of the biggest stages.

The game was also supposed to serve as somewhat of a welcome back party for Bulls star point guard Derrick Rose who's endured a number of injuries of his own over the last several seasons and is expected to be at full strength this year. And had it not been for the injury to George, the story of the game at least in my eyes was D.Rose. Rose made a number of turnovers during a stretche where it appeared he was trying to do too much at times, but overall he looked good and displayed the explosiveness that we've all grown to love and expect from the 2011 league MVP when he made a dazzling layup on one play before slamming home a dunk on another. And though it was just a small sample size of what we saw from D.Rose in the limited action he saw on the court, it was enough to convince me that the Chicago Bulls will be serious contenders to win the Eastern Conference this year assuming he stays healthy. It may be a bold statement but with Paul George most likely out for the season in Indiana, the Knicks still being in a mess, the Cavs adjusting to life with LeBron again and Miami now without their best player of the last four seasons, the Bulls can very much contend for a title if D.Rose resembles anything like the 3-time All-Star that dominated his first three seasons in the league from 2010-12.

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Lakers find their man in Byron Scott

After finishing dead last in the Pacific division out west and posting their worst record in franchise history at 27-55 under coach Mike D'Antoni last season, the team has announced their newest hire. With D'Antoni resigning back on April 30, the Lakers have finally put an end to their head coaching vacancy nearly three months to the day with the announcement of a four-year, $17 Million contract agreement with Byron Scott. With both free agency and the NBA Draft the top priorities during the early stages of the NBA offseason for the Lakers, GM Mitch Kupchak decided to hold off on hiring a head coach until the dust settled as the game's top free agents found homes. And with the Lakers failing to land either LeBron James or Carmello Anthony, both of whom they were willing to cater to and allow their voice to be heard in the hiring process for the next head coach, the team went on to offer the job to the man we knew they'd hire all along.

Though there were other interviewees which included George Karl, Kurt Rambis, Mike Dunleavy, Alvin Gentry and Lionel Hollins, the job was pretty much Scott's to lose from the get go. That became even more apparent as the interview process went on as Byron Scott returned for a second and third interview as most of the other candidates began signing elsewhere. With defense being a weak point for the team that failed to make the playoffs last season, the disciplinarian that Scott is known throughout the league to be should be a good fit for this Laker team. Scott also knows everything that needs to be known when under the bright lights of Hollywood. Not only does he know a thing or two about the franchise having played 10 seasons in L.A. and winning three titles with the "Showtime" Lakers, he's also quite familiar with the team he'll now be drawing up plays for as he served as an analyst on the Lakers' home station -- Time Warner Cable Sportsnet this past season. 
But what might have been the decided factor overall is his relationship with Lakers star Kobe Bryant. Having once upon a time called Byron Scott a teammate of his during his rookie season with the Lakers in 1996, Kobe has credited his new coach as being a mentor of his and someone he's always had a great deal of respect for and has expressed his interest in playing under Scott if the opportunity presented itself. With the organization expecting success only to be left disappointed each of the last few seasons with both Mike Brown and Mike D'Antoni at the helm, fans weren't hesitant to let their frustration be known. But being one of their own, Byron Scott will get somewhat of a free pass from Laker fans during this rebuilding stage and won't be chased out of the door right away if say the Lakers fail to make the playoffs again. But that's not to say coach Scott is expecting anything short of success from the purple and gold this year. 

Along with the new coaching staff, Laker fans will be seeing some new faces this season as well as some old ones. With Nick Young, Jordan Hill, Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry and Ryan Kelly all re-signing to join Kobe, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre as returning players this year, the Lakers also made a few new acquisitions. After watching Pau Gasol walk via free agency and sign with the Chicago Bulls, the Lakers claimed former All-Star Carlos Boozer off amnesty waivers while also signing power forward Ed Davis. In need of some depth at the point guard position, the Lakers landed Jeremy Lin from the Houston Rockets along with a first and second round pick in next year's Draft. And last but not least is PF Julius Randle who the Lakers took with the seventh overall pick out of Kentucky in last month's Draft and second round pick Jordan Clarkson (Missouri, point guard) who L.A. acquired on draft night from the Washington Wizards.
Byron Scott's coaching resume includes two trips to the NBA Finals while with the then New Jersey Nets and a Coach of the Year Award (2008) with the then New Orleans Hornets. After taking over a Cleveland Cavaliers team that would end up losing LeBron James via free agency to the Miami Heat just days after his arrival, Scott would be fired from the Cavs in 2013. Scott also joins a long list of former Laker players who later went on to coach the team which includes: Pat Riley, Jerry West, Jim Pollard, George Mikan, Kurt Rambis and Magic Johnson. 

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

LeBron James: There's No Place like Home

Four years ago, fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers burned their LeBron James jerseys after the kid who grew up just a stones throw away in Akron, Ohio, ditched the state he was born and raised in for the sandy shores of South Beach. Now, those same fans will be racing to the nearest sporting goods store in hopes of purchasing a new one as all seems to be forgotten now that King James is heading back home. After exercising the option on the final year of his contract with the Miami Heat, LeBron made the decision to return home to play for the Cavs and restore his image and relationship with the city of Cleveland where he played his first seven seasons and won 2 of his 4 MVP Awards. And doing so in a much more appropriate manner than he did in July of 2010 when he announced his decision to take his talents to South Beach on live television. This time, King James did the complete opposite, sparring us from having to sit in front of a TV screen by revealing his decision in an essay released by Sports Illustrated. 

In his essay, one line best describes LeBron's decision to return home: "My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now." With LeBron receiving major criticism for having ESPN make a 30-minute spectacle out of his infamous "The Decision" special, his choice of announcing his return via letter has received praise and in some ways erases his shameful past. And though a return to the Cavs at some time during his career was inevitable, if anything stood in the way of LeBron returning, it was the rocky relationship between he and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert. Gilbert, who took numerous shots at his former star player for his departure to Miami and was arguably the most heartbroken regarding James' decision four years ago by calling him a "coward", went as far as saying the Cavs would win a ring before LeBron ever did and accused him of quitting on the team during the 2010 NBA Finals. Boy was he ever wrong.
Prior to being informed that he was once again the winner of the LeBron James sweepstakes, Gilbert apologized to James face-to-face for his mistakes and said the two, "had seven great years together and one terrible night." And as any smart owner would do if given the opportunity to acquire the best player in the world, Gilbert helped bridge the gap between he and LeBron and expressed his excitement via Twitter by welcoming James back home. This undoubtedly has to be the happiest Gilbert's been in years given the Cavs have missed the playoffs in each of the last four years and haven't had a winning season since LeBron's departure. But the luckiest man of all just might be the Cavaliers' newly hired head coach David Blatt who's job just got a lot easier, having inherited a team with not only the best player on the planet, but also a star point-guard in Kyrie Irving and the most coveted player in the 2014 NBA Draft in number one overall pick -- Andrew Wiggins. Not bad for a guy who will be making his NBA coaching debut.

Shortly after word got out that LeBron was returning to Ohio, Cavs fans poured out onto the streets to celebrate as if they just won an NBA title. Something they've never experienced in the 40+ year history of their franchise and hope this time around that their savior can deliver on. But don't go rocking out to the theme song of the Drew Carey show "Cleveland rocks" just yet. Unlike James' speech which helped fire up the Miami fan base when he was first introduced alongside Heat big three front mates Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh where he went on to say the team would win, "...not five, not six, not seven..." James wrote in his letter that he wasn't promising a championship to the people of Cleveland, adding that it won't be easy. But that didn't stop Cavs season tickets from flying off the shelves and selling out just hours after LeBron's return was announced, nor did it prevent several Las Vegas casinos from making the Cavs the favorites to win it all next season, where as the Miami Heat's odds have now plummeted despite both Bosh and Wade eyeing a return to South Beach.
For LeBron who has matured greatly since 2010, the return to Cleveland gives him a chance to recover the legacy many believe he tarnished by leaving his home behind to chase a ring and join forces with Bosh and Wade. After turning the page on that chapter of his career, James will be embarking on a new chapter which will feature him playing the role of mentor for the first time as he looks to take a bright young talent in Andrew Wiggins under his wing. That's unless Wiggins is dealt as rumors have now begun to swirl involving a possible trade for Minnesota Timberwolves star forward Kevin Love who has been "intrigued" by the thoughts of joining LeBron in Cleveland and has said he'd commit to a long-term deal with the team. But it won't be easy to accomplish as the T-Wolves have already declined an offer that included Dion Waiters, last year's first overall pick Anthony Bennett and Cleveland's first-round pick next year, while making it clear that they have eyes for Wiggins. Adding Love into the mix would certainly put Cleveland over the top as the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference to contend for a title. But until then, 2014-15 might be a lot like 2006-07 when LeBron led the Cavs to an NBA Finals appearance but was unable to claim the title.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

San Francisco Giants Month in Review - June

Following a dominant month of May which saw the San Francisco Giants jump out to a blazing start, manager Bruce Bochy saw his team continue their winning ways through the first week of June. After taking two of three on the road in Cincinnati where the Giants have struggled in recent years and sweeping a three-game series at home vs the Mets, San Francisco stood at 41-20 with the best record in all of baseball. It would also be the best 60-game start to a season for the Giants since 1973. And on June 8, the Giants would witness their lead in the NL Western Division hike up to 9 1/2 games over the second place Los Angeles Dodgers. But any hopes of running away with the division, would come crashing down by months end.

After going 6-1 to begin the month of June, it was almost as if someone flipped a switch as the Giants began struggling both offensively and with their pitching which up to that point had been clicking on all cylinders. Right-hander Tim Hudson who through the first two and a half months as a Giant, looked anything but human on the mound. But a trio of bad outings in June for Huddy, who still boasts an ERA of 2.59, and three blown saves in a two week span for reliever Sergio Romo who would be stripped of his closing duties, would highlight some of San Francisco's pitching woes. The Giants would also experience a power outage on offense as the long ball which played a key role in the team's early success, went missing. Also gone missing would be the Giants' lead-off hitter and spark plug in Angel Pagan who's been sidelined since June 14, while nursing a back injury.
Overall, the Giants would finish the month of June going 10-16, losing 5 of their last 6 series' in the month. Bochy and company would witness their reign of 2+ months in first place come to an end as San Francisco seized the top spot in the NL West on the last day of the month. With the Giants having a day off, the Dodgers took advantage by blanking the Cleveland Indians to take a 1/2 game lead in the division. That lead wouldn't last long, however, as the Giants reclaimed first place the very next day with a win copped with a Dodgers loss. Heading into July, the Giants had lost 15 of 19 games entering the month, but despite their struggles, they would still hang on to one of the best records in the league at 46-36. It wouldn't be all doom and gloom for the orange and black in the month of June, however, as the month also witnessed Tim Lincecum hurl his second career no-hitter. His historic outing would also be the first of back-to-back shutout outings for the 2-time Cy Young Award winner who would also be awarded Player of the Week honors for the performance.

For the Giants, the month of July will feature the halfway point as the All-Star break commences from July 14-17 with the MLB All-Star Game taking place on Tuesday July 15. As for San Francisco's opponents, unlike the month of June where all eight series' were against teams at or below the .500 mark, July will be a much harder task as five of their nine series' will be against teams with winning records. One of those teams the Giants will be meeting with is their Bay Area rival -- Oakland Athletics who currently own the best record in the league. 

Follow me on Twitter: @FraserKnowsBest