It’s not often that a player is still a desired commodity days after his 43rd birthday, but that’s precisely what Jaromir Jagr, who was traded from the New Jersey Devils to the Florida Panthers on Thursday, appears to be.Despite recent frustrations over his playing time with New Jersey, Jagr could prove to be a useful short-term rental for the Panthers. He retains the same soft hands and keen vision that made him a five-time scoring champion. And like so many of hockey’s greatest offensive talents before him, Jagr has a knack for skating where the action is headed before it arrives. His trademark strength seems scarcely to have waned with time; he still has moments when he’s nearly impossible to knock off the puck along the boards.Jagr is by no means the player he once was. But it’s improbable enough that he is still a player at all, still part of the league more than 24 years after his NHL debut. He had been 81 days older than the league’s second-oldest active player — St. Louis Blues goaltender Martin Brodeur — but then Brodeur up and retired last month. Now, no current player was born within 25 months of Jagr.Of course, more than perhaps any major sports league, the NHL has had a place for ancient players. Three and a half decades ago, Gordie Howe — then the NHL’s all-time scoring leader — famously skated through a full 80-game schedule that concluded a week after his 52nd birthday. More recently, Chris Chelios was still manning an NHL blueline at age 48. And just last season, Teemu Selanne played at an age seven months older than Jagr is now. So it’s not quite unprecedented for Jagr to still be around at age 43 — and counting.But Jagr’s past few years have surpassed what just about any other NHL player has ever done in his dotage. Despite posting the leanest traditional numbers of his long career this year (more on that later), Jagr is1As of late last week. in the midst of the seventh-best adjusted point shares above replacement (PSAR)2A modification of the Hockey-Reference.com metric that assigns goaltending worth according to Tom Tango’s wins above replacement and re-allocates the remaining value such that forwards receive 60 percent of league PSAR in a given season, defensemen get 30 percent and goaltenders receive 10 percent. season by any skater aged 43 or older3As of March 1 of the season in question. since the NHL’s Original Six era began in 1942-43. What’s more, he was better last year: No non-goalie aged 42 or older has ever had more PSAR in a season than Jagr’s 6.9 in 2013-14.Plus, there’s a strong case to be made that the conventional stats — and the next-level metrics based off of them, such as PSAR — have undersold Jagr’s contributions to the Devils, particularly this season.As marvelous as they are for a player his age, Jagr’s basic numbers this year haven’t been eye-popping by the standards of other forwards logging as much ice time. In 53 games, he’s notched a modest 11 goals and 18 assists to go with a -10 plus-minus rating. (As a point of comparison, if Jagr had played to his career per-game averages, he’d already have 25 goals and 37 assists by now!) According to PSAR, which synthesizes box-score stats into a single-number representation of value, it’s been his worst season ever — and by no small margin. The 18-year-old rookie version of Jagr had 3.1 PSAR in 1990-91, after which he wouldn’t put up fewer than 4.9 PSAR in a single season again — until this year.Hockey’s recent statistical revolution, however, has brought with it more sophisticated ways to gauge a player’s contribution to his team. Its biggest lesson? That although goals and assists are great, there’s also a big advantage in simply helping your team keep possession of the puck.And as it so happens, Jagr is still one of the best players in the league at that.Over the past two seasons, Jagr’s Devils haven’t been an especially strong hockey club. They rank 24th in both point percentage4In the wacky world of the NHL’s standings, some measure of sanity can still be salvaged by dividing a team’s standings points by the total number of points handed out in its games. So, for instance, the winner of a regulation game would earn 2 out of 2 total points; meanwhile, the winner of a shootout would get 2 out of the 3 total points awarded, since the loser would also get 1 point. Among other things, this has the advantage of preserving a .500 record as the mark of an average team. and goal differential during that span, and while the team has undeniably been plagued by poor shooting and save percentage luck, they’ve also posted relatively unimpressive possession rates — except when Jagr is on the ice. With Jagr, New Jersey plays like one of the premier possession teams in hockey5The Devils’ zone start-adjusted 5-on-5 Fenwick percentage with Jagr on the ice would rank third in the NHL over the past two seasons.; without him, they play like one of the worst.Studying Jagr’s game, it’s not hard to see why this is the case. Although his stride — never the fastest even in his prime — is noticeably sluggish these days, he makes up for it with sheer hockey sense, constantly scanning the ice for passing opportunities or chances to extend possession by corralling loose pucks. Perhaps more importantly, he remains the master of shielding the puck with his 6-foot-3-inch, 240-pound frame, creating scoring chances for himself and others by cycling possession deep within the offensive zone.“I know … my strength,” Jagr recently told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “I like to play [in the] offensive zone on the boards. I still feel like I’m strong enough to beat anybody, [or] at least hold that puck. … Maybe I’m not going to beat that guy one-on-one like I used to, but I can still make a play from that corner from the cycle. That’s my strength. And in the playoffs, that’s the way you play.”This is why, with the NHL’s trade deadline approaching, Jagr was mentioned as a legitimate option for contending teams looking to upgrade their offense — particularly with the man advantage — before the playoffs begin. Ironically, it seems that as the league increases its emphasis on possession, Jagr’s value has only been heightened even as his goals and assists have receded with age. And for Florida, barely clinging to the hope of a playoff berth but with clear upgrades to be had on the power play and in advanced metrics, Jagr might be a good fit.On the other hand, what does it say about the state of the NHL in 2015 that a plodding 43-year-old future Hall of Famer could change a team’s postseason chances?Like many things in hockey, it’s a question that leads back to Howe. In the foreword to Howe’s (excellent) new autobiography, the great defenseman Bobby Orr marveled at Howe’s longevity: “Today, if a player cracks the top five in scoring in the NHL, he’s considered a star. Do it a couple of years in a row and you’re a superstar. … Well, Gordie Howe did it twenty years in a row. That’s right — twenty. How do you begin to do justice to a legacy like that?”It was undoubtedly an impressive run for Howe, but — counterintuitively — the ability of a man in his 40s (and even 50s) to still dominate a professional sports league might speak as much about the quality of play around him as to his own athletic gifts.In 1968-69 — the final year of the streak to which Orr referred — a 40-year-old Howe was nearly the best player in hockey, finishing second only to 26-year-old Phil Esposito in PSAR. And in his final season more than a decade later, Howe was serviceable enough to be a regular contributor. But the NHL of that era also underwent an enormous amount of upheaval between expansion, the emergence of a rival league (the World Hockey Association), and the influx of new talent (and a fresh playing style) from Europe.In some ways, the chaos of the 1960s and ’70s provided the perfect cover for an aging megastar such as Howe to keep his career rolling. We can see this in the percentage of total NHL PSAR going to various cohorts of skaters, grouped by age, over time:The 1960s saw the NHL’s first expansion since the Great Depression — marking the end of the Original Six era — and they also coincided with a major uptick in the production of older players, one that would not fully abate until the early 1980s. In addition to Howe, players such as Alex Delvecchio, John Bucyk, Jean Beliveau, Frank Mahovlich and Jean Ratelle all produced great seasons in their late 30s (and beyond).The present day also appears to be a haven for the comparatively superannuated. Starting in the early to mid-1990s, the fraction of league value produced by the oldest batch of NHL players swelled to levels not seen since the 1970s. While that proportion has decreased a bit today relative to its peak in the immediate aftermath of the NHL’s lost 2004-05 season, it remains higher now than at any point between 1974 and 1996.So Jagr’s longevity, impressive as it is, might also be a symptom of ongoing weaknesses in the state of pro hockey itself. Is it mere coincidence that the uptick began right when the NHL’s aggressive expansion plans of the 1990s were fully realized? Or that it lasted through the so-called Dead Puck Era and well into the post-lockout “New NHL“? It’s not clear.But regardless of where Jagr sits in the intersection between the NHL’s health and the twilight of his once-immense (and still formidable) skills, he remains a player to which attention is owed. The Panthers are picking up more than a living legend playing out the final act of his career — they’re nabbing a player who still offers many of the little advantages that could make a difference along the journey to the Stanley Cup.
The sad story of former NBA star Allen Iverson took another dramatic turn Sunday, when TMZ reported Iverson’s estranged wife Tawanna is seeking a restraining order against him.According to Tawanna Iverson, Allen “has engaged in increasingly contemptuous, threatening and disturbing behavior” in recent months. She would like the restraining order to be put in place until the two can agree on a divorce settlement.A.I. denies her claim that the relationship as “irretrievably broken,” citing that he and his wife were intimate for a four-month stretch after she re-filed to split in Fulton County, Ga. in June last year.The demand may seem a bit strange, since Iverson isn’t even in the country—he’s currently in Shanghai, China on a NBA Legends tour.
Goalie Tim Howard was brilliant.There are streaks and then there is what the U.S. men’s soccer team faced with Mexico. It seems absurd to believe that the Americans could go 75 years without winning a game in Mexico. Seventy-five years.Finally, however, with a 1-0 victory Tuesday night, the U.S. ended the ridiculously protracted streak.In an ironic twice, the game’s only goal, scored in the 80th minute, was by Michael Orozco Fiscal, a 26-year-old defender from Orange, Calif., whose parents were born in — you guessed it — Mexico.“The goal was for the U.S. fans and the whole U.S. We made history,” Orozco Fiscal said.Mexico dominated control of the game for much of the night but the Americans did not relent. Orozco Fiscal’s goal was the breakthrough they needed, and goalie Tim Howard made sprawling saves to secure the history-making win.“Just happy we won and made history,” the U.S.A’s Brek Shea said. “It’s something we haven’t done in a long time. Just to be on the roster is cool.”Shea had a role in the game’s only score. He cut inside Severo Meza on the left flank and crossed to Terrence Boyd at the top of the 6-yard box. With his back to the goal, Boyd took a touch with his left foot and with his right made a quick backheel pass to Orozco Fiscal, who with his left foot poked it from 3 yards past goalkeeper Guilleremo Ochoaand defender Jorge Torres Nilo for his first international goal.Orozco Fiscal, who plays in Mexico for San Luis, was a member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team but hasn’t established himself with the varsity.He entered in the 77th minute for his fifth international appearance and first since October. Shea, back with the team for the first time since February following a season of turmoil in Major League Soccer, came on a minute later. Boyd, a German-American who made his U.S. debut in February, had entered to start the second half.
Tennessee Titans player Bernard Pollard was fined $42,000 by the NFL for his hit on Andre Johnson on Sunday. The Houston Texans’ wide receiver suffered a concussion as a result of the collision.Pollard tweeted Wednesday that he was contacted by the NFL, where they told him the amount he would have to pay.“So @nfl said I did “everything right” but 42k later I still get fined. Wow! It’s called football but they want 2 hand touch. #TitanUp#”An NFL insider confirmed to ESPN that Pollard was indeed fined $42,000 for the hit. Pollard was penalized for hitting a defenseless receiver in the head with his shoulder, according to the source. Pollard made an effort to not hit Johnson excessively; he turned his head to avoid a helmet-to-helmet contact on the hit. As a result, the referees didn’t call a penalty on the play.Pollard will reportedly appeal the fine. The NFL will make an official announcement about the fine on Friday.
New Clipper owner Steve Ballmer (orange shirt) with NBA commissioner Adam Silver. Photo: Getty ImagesDonald Sterling, disgraced and stripped of his NBA franchise after recorded racist remarks were released by a girlfriend, fought to hold on to the Los Angles Clippers, and insulted even more people along the way. But all his fight was for naught, as a California court Tuesday confirmed his wife Shelly’s authority to sell the team to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.Minutes after the ruling, the $2 billion deal was inked and Sterling was officially out, his legal options over. And so Doc Rivers, the coach who reportedly contemplated quitting if Sterling remained owner, and players like Chris Paul can abandon the notion of sitting out in protest of Sterling.“It’s very, very exciting. I’m a basketball nut,” Ballmer said in an interview with ESPN. “I’ve got time. I love Los Angeles. I love Seattle, too, which is where we have our home. But the notion of spending a lot of time in Los Angeles has been exciting to me for years. The community down there is great. I look forward to supporting the community, the fan base, the staff, Doc [Rivers] and the players to take this thing to higher heights.”Ballmer was unable to complete the sale until Tuesday’s written court order affirmed Shelly Sterling’s authority to sell the franchise without the consent of her husband, Donald Sterling. There was frustration in the delay, Ballmer said. But he held steadfast.“My job has been to complete the deal and there were a lot of people, including me, working on it for a long time,” Ballmer said. “Was I kind of itchy? Sure. But I knew the only thing I could do or should do was complete the final deal, and we were able to do that.”The NBA’s board of governors interviewed Ballmer on July 15, then took a vote electronically last week in which he was unanimously approved as an owner, sources told ESPN.Ballmer decided he would complete the sale as soon as Superior Court Judge Michael Levanas’ written order came in, which occurred at 11:30 a.m.“We were ready,” Adam Streisand, Ballmer’s attorney, said. “Within minutes, the deal was signed, sealed and delivered.”In a statement, Rivers said it was “an amazing day in Clippers history. I couldn’t be more excited to work together with Steve as we continue to build a first-class, championship organization. I am already inspired by Steve’s passion for the game, his love of competition and desire to win the right way, and I know our players and fans are going to be inspired as well.”Paul added: “I am very excited about Mr. Ballmer’s purchase of the Clippers. I’ve had a chance to meet him, and his excitement for the game of basketball and our team is going to be great for the league, the city of Los Angeles and Clipper fans everywhere.”
Reds+0.58-0.04-0.22 Diamondbacks+0.28+0.04+0.17 Rangers+0.24-0.78-0.08 Cubs+0.49+0.74+0.84 Padres+0.94-0.11+0.13 Twins+0.41-0.03-0.10 Phillies+0.35+0.05+0.35 Red Sox+0.63-0.27-0.12 Cardinals+0.44-0.26-0.02 Royals+0.85-0.27-0.20 Mets+0.23-0.19-0.04 Giants+0.50-0.04+0.05 Astros+0.87+0.09+0.11 Rockies+0.88+0.13+0.12 Pirates+0.92-0.13-0.07 Yankees+0.90+0.62+0.74 Braves+0.46+0.11+0.08 Mariners+1.07-0.38-0.35 SENTIMENT SCORE Tigers+0.55+0.15-0.11 Baseball teams have a way of dragging their fans’ moods with their fortunes on the field. It’s no fun to root for a perpetually losing team, especially if its performance seems unlikely to improve. Conversely, an unexpected contender has a way of lifting one’s spirits.But wins and losses are much easier to measure than happiness. We do have a proxy, though: the masses at Reddit. I scraped comments from each team’s subreddit1Using this script to get text from specific subreddits. on the website and determined how happy their comments were.2In technical terms, the valence of each subreddit, or how positive it was. To do this, I used the AFINN-111 word list, which was assembled by Finn Arup Nielsen in 2011. To do that I used sentiment analysis, collecting the words used by each fan base to determine their overall level of joy. More positive words (“win,” “wow,” “wonderful”) point to a happier fan base, and more negative words (“unimpressed,” “miserable,” “wrong”) suggest the opposite.Here are some highlights of what I found (a full table is at the bottom of this post):There are some caveats, as there always are with sentiment analysis. The word list I used was calibrated to a sentiment analysis of Twitter — it’s possible that language is used differently on Reddit, and so the sentiment scores may not be as calibrated to the medium as they would be if we had Reddit-centric sentiment scoring. For example, the word “damn” is rated as strongly negative, since it is usually a negative exclamation (“damn, we lost again”). However, it can also be used in a positive sense: “damn, that was our fifth straight win, we are pretty good.” And maybe people on Reddit “damn” more positively than the hordes on Twitter. (The same can go for any word used atypically in any sentence, making its meaning different from how the algorithm interpreted it.) Also, people who write on Reddit do not constitute a random sample of a team’s fans.But let’s get back to the results. Hope springs eternal in the offseason but is extinguished for many fan bases by July.3All measurements come from three time periods: one preseason (Feb. 15 to March 15), one pre-trade-deadline (June 15 to July 15), and one crossing the trade deadline (July 15 to Aug. 15). That makes sense given how many teams don’t have any hope left. In the preseason, only one team — the Phillies — had playoff odds less than 1 percent, per FanGraphs. Now, 11 teams have odds less than 1 percent. Sentiment scores per word — our index of happiness — tended to be between 0.3 and 1 on the sentiment scale in the offseason, indicating that the average word was a positive one (between a neutral word and the word “agreement”). Nowadays, the same scores have plunged. Clearly the grind of the MLB season wears on the fans’ happiness as it does the players.Every fan base lost some of its happiness from the preseason, save one: the Chicago Cubs, who increased their sentiment score by a bit. The Cubs have not only been contenders in the crowded National League Central, they have also seen a number of top prospects called up, most notably Kris Bryant (but also Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber). Not only are the Cubs contending a little earlier than expected — the future is even brighter.All other teams’ fans have become much less happy since February, but not all by the same amount. The change in sentiment score from February to July is roughly in proportion to the change in playoff odds of each team.4The correlation coefficient is r = -.3, which is not quite significant. Teams that made strides in their playoff hopes such as the Yankees, Angels and Dodgers have seen the smallest declines in sentiment since February. At the other end of the spectrum, teams such as the Mariners, Athletics and Padres have seen their playoff odds tumble. Their fan bases also have had some of the most pronounced declines in sentiment scores per word.From July to August, sentiment scores were steady, fluctuating about four times less than they did from February to July.5The Pearson correlation value was a strong .746. The trade deadline didn’t seem to do much to move the needle in terms of fan happiness, but the teams that did gain are mostly the ones you’d expect: the Blue Jays (who strengthened their roster enormously), the Cardinals (who locked down a playoff spot) and a few others who were riding winning streaks. On the other side, the Tigers lost happiness, witnessing their championship window close and their highly regarded general manager leave.Although on-field success can buy happiness, it doesn’t seem to work for every team. The Royals have gained the most playoff probability of any team since the preseason, but they lost the fourth-most happiness from the offseason to July. There are any number of potential reasons6Including the All-Star controversy, an injury to their star player (Alex Gordon), and enmity from other teams/fan bases. for the relative grumpiness of Royals fans, but one may be that fans were more optimistic about the Royals than the projection systems. While contention in Kansas City may seem surprising to sabermetricians, it may not to Royals fans who were riding high off a World Series appearance.Conversely, failure on the field isn’t necessarily enough to dissuade a happy fan base. The Phillies, hopeless since the beginning of the year, nevertheless have fans who aren’t that much sadder than they were before the season. Despite the loss of erstwhile ace Cole Hamels at the trade deadline, fans have gotten happier since July — his trade and others signaled a shift in direction for the team toward rebuilding. As above with the Cubs, fan bases seem to not only weigh the present but also to consider the prospect for future improvement.There are also some inexplicable cases such as that of the Rays, whose fan base declined in sentiment much more dramatically than their playoff odds would lead one to expect. It’s possible that the Rays’ 4-8 slide in July before the All-Star break had something to do with it, or the seven-game losing streak from June 28 to July 4. The streaks, winning and losing, may play havoc with fans’ emotions, causing people to see false patterns suggesting imminent decline in what is mostly random fluctuation.Obviously, we’re grasping for answers as to why fans are happier or sadder as the season goes by. But the general trend seems to be that a complex calculus of current performance and hope for the future dictates how happy each team’s fan base feels. Of course, it all resets come March. Hang tight, Reds fans. Only a few more months to go. Angels+0.28+0.21+0.08 TEAMFEBRUARYJULYAUGUST Blue Jays+0.28-0.03+0.21 Nationals+0.61-0.11-0.18 Rays+2.24+0.04+0.27 Dodgers+0.29+0.07-0.15 Athletics+0.62+0.10+0.10 Marlins+1.44-0.08+0.19 White Sox+0.940.00-0.07 Brewers+0.71-0.29-0.06 Indians+0.66+0.05-0.02 Orioles+0.43-0.07+0.08
Scoring 50 goals in 50 games is the crowning achievement of an NHL goal scorer. Players who do so join a club of legends including Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Maurice Richard. The club is exclusive — it has only five members, and it hasn’t accepted a new application in 25 years. There are dozens and dozens of active NHL players who weren’t alive yet the last time someone scored 50 goals in 50 games, when Brett Hull did it during the 1991-92 season.As with throwing dead octopuses onto the ice and shaking hands with the opponent after a playoff series, the 50 in 50 club is like many things unique to the NHL: steeped in history and perhaps devoid of logic. The attention bestowed on the exploit dates back to the days when there were only 50 games on the schedule. So when Richard became to first to do it in 1945, it meant he averaged a goal a game for a whole season. When the schedule expanded to 60 games — and then to 70 games, and then 74, 76, 78, 80 and 84 games, finally settling at 82 games — 50 in 50 remained a thing. Because, you know, why not?Like with many exclusive clubs, there are also a lot of rules. To gain access, you must score 50 goals in your team’s first 50 games, not your own. Alexander Mogilny scored 50 goals in his first 46 games in 1992-93, but an injury forced him to miss three weeks at the beginning of the season. Mogilny’s 50th tally came in his team’s 53rd game, so he’s not allowed in. No exceptions!It’s not easy to sustain a goal-per-game pace for 50 consecutive games, but so far this season, Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov is doing almost exactly that. With 14 goals in 15 games, the young Russian with a hellacious shot has set himself up to make a legitimate run at hockey’s goal-scoring holy grail.Of course, many others have started the season on a similar tear in recent years — and all of them ended up way short of the benchmark. Here’s how every player who notched at least 14 goals in his team’s first 15 games post-lockout stacked up against the last three 50/50 players. Amazingly, only one of these players (Jaromir Jagr in 2006) exceeded 50 goals on the season, let alone in 50 games. In the 2005-06 season, winger Simon Gagne scored 17 in the Flyers’ first 15 games, but he ultimately scored only 17 more in the next 35. In that same season, both Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson had 15 goals through the first 15 games. They both cooled, too — like Gagne, they each netted 17 goals in the following 35 games.But there’s reason to believe this year might be different: The league itself seems different.So far this season, goalies are stopping pucks with less success than they have since 2008-09. But not all of the blame can be placed on lackluster goaltending — a number of rule changes have led to an increase in power play opportunities per game. More power play opportunities equal more high-quality scoring opportunities, which means more goalies left hung out to dry.It’s not shocking to see an analog in the 2005-06 season, when Jagr, Gagne, Heatley and Alfredsson each flirted with a goal-a-game pace: The league instituted rule changes in the wake of the 2004-05 lockout with the express purpose of increasing the number of goals per game, which had tanked in the NHL of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Chief among those rule changes was the elimination of the two-line offside pass. Defenses were slow to adjust to the rule change, which led to a preponderance of breakaways and two-on-one situations.In the 1980s and early 1990s, the NHL was a wide open league, and goaltending often seemed like an afterthought. From 1980-81 to 1993-94, the goals against average for the league never dipped below 3.0 — and the 50 in 50 was accomplished seven times.1Mike Bossy, Gretzky (three times), Lemieux, Hull (twice). From 1994-95 to the present, the goals against average has risen higher than 3.0 in only one season. It hasn’t climbed quite that high this season, but it’s close.2It currently sits at 2.89.Kucherov isn’t the only one taking advantage of the increase in scoring. Like during the 2005-06 season, this year’s NHL has a handful of players vying for NHL legend status. Alex Ovechkin has also started the year on fire (13 goals in 16 games), while Islanders’ captain John Tavares has 12 goals in 15.Of course, a goal scorer is nothing without dime-dishing linemates, and Kucherov has benefited from playing with the league’s leading point getter in Steven Stamkos (who missed 65 games last season, and the Bolts missed the playoffs). Stamkos is known best for his goal scoring prowess — he’s a two-time recipient of the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy, awarded to the league’s top goal scorer — but this year it’s his passing that has him at the top of the NHL’s scoring list. He’s still scoring goals, but his 18 assists pace the league. And 10 of those helpers have come on goals scored by Kucherov.Every player to hit the 50-goals-in-50-games milestone played on a line with one (or two) very good passers. Lemieux — who also unofficially scored 50 in 50 in two other seasons3Super Mario scored 50 goals in his first 50 games in both the 1992-93 and 1995-96 seasons, but neither exploit came on or before his team’s first 50 games. Sorry, Mario: Hockey conservatives say this doesn’t count. — played the bulk of his career on lines with some combination of Jagr, Kevin Stevens and Ron Francis. Hull played on a line in St. Louis with Adam Oates. Gretzky had Jari Kurri, Mike Bossy had Bryan Trottier and Clark Gillies, and Richard had Elmer Lach and Toe Blake. And it’s not a stretch to place Kucherov and Stamkos among these all-time great duos and trios.Kucherov’s gaudy numbers aren’t surprising — he’s scored no fewer than 29 goals in each of his three full NHL seasons and has an astounding career shooting percentage of 15.1. But that historically good shooting percentage is up dramatically this season: At the moment, Kucherov is scoring on 24 percent of the shots he’s taking. That’s destined to regress to the mean, but for now, Kucherov’s shot looks damn near unsavable.Who knows if Kucherov — or Ovechkin or Tavares — can sustain a goal-per-game pace for all 50 games. Even if they don’t, they’ve already made the NHL feel a little bit like the wild old days of the ’80s and early ’90s. And they’ve given every hockey nerd something to pull for.
The Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks have faced off in plenty of playoff showdowns over the years, including four clashes in the 1980s alone, during the heyday of Larry Legend and Sid the Squid. This year’s series renewed the rivalry after a 31-year hiatus, and it’s largely lived up to expectations so far: Game 1 featured a pair of buzzer-beaters at the close of regulation before Boston won in overtime, then the Celtics handily took Game 2. But the Bucks managed to claw their way back, running away with Game 3 before winning Game 4 in thrilling fashion to tie the series up.Here are four questions to ponder as the teams head back to Boston and begin what’s now a best-of-three affair.Can Milwaukee’s offense stay hot?The biggest statistical trend helping to turn the tide in this series has been the newfound efficiency of the Milwaukee offense, which went from averaging a mediocre 105.9 points per 100 possessions1The league’s regular-season average was 106.2. in Games 1 and 2 to a scorching 122.8 points per 100 in Games 3 and 4, according to NBA Advanced Stats.You don’t heat up an offense that quickly without an abrupt change in shooting fortunes, and the Bucks have certainly turned things around from beyond the arc. In Games 1 and 2, Milwaukee averaged just 7.5 3-pointers per game — a number below its paltry regular-season average of 8.8 — with only Khris Middleton (who, granted, made a whopping 4.5 threes per game) providing any consistent spacing from the outside. Over the past two games, however, Milwaukee has increased its threes per game to 13, with 10 different players making at least one 3-pointer. In Game 3 alone, the Bucks set a franchise postseason record with 16 threes, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.So much of the Bucks’ offense is tied up in the playing style of its leading talent, Giannis Antetokounmpo, a player whose unmatched combination of size, length and athleticism allows him to get shots as close to the basket as he wants. (During the regular season, Giannis led the NBA in paint scoring at 15.7 points per game, and the Bucks were tied for the fifth-most buckets from the restricted area.) But as great as Antetokounmpo is, the reality of the modern NBA is that such a defense-collapsing force needs to be complemented with shooting that pushes opponents into impossible defensive dilemmas.The Bucks have often struggled to pose such a threat from deep; they made the league’s fourth-fewest threes per game during the regular season. But they hinted at a fuller offensive potential over the past few games versus Boston, with their increased focus on long-range shooting. It’s worth watching to see if Milwaukee can keep pairing those threes with a Giannis-led interior attack to potentially key a playoff series victory.Can Boston get Terry Rozier back on track?One of the keys to whether Boston could survive the loss of Kyrie Irving has been the play of Terry Rozier, the third-year guard who enjoyed a breakout regular season and took on an increased role in March after Irving’s knee surgery. Rozier was stellar in the first two games of this series, averaging 23 points (on 46.9 percent shooting) and zero turnovers per game as the Celtics built their 2-0 lead. But he has cooled down substantially, with his averages falling to 9.5 points (on 26.3 percent shooting) and 3 turnovers per game in Boston’s pair of losses.Which Rozier will show up now? It will depends on how he cracks the defense of Eric Bledsoe and, increasingly, Matthew Dellavedova — who guarded Rozier with success in Games 3 and 4. That pair has succeeded in making Rozier much less dynamic as both a passer and a scorer in the past two games, holding him to 8.5 potential assists per game (down from 10 in Games 1 and 2) and a usage rate of 18.4 percent (down from 20 percent).The Celtics have still gotten plenty of scoring punch from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who in Game 4 became the second pair of teammates under 22 years old to ever notch 55 combined points in a playoff game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau — joining Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant from 2010. But with Rozier suddenly struggling, the Celtics are missing an important version of the stellar backcourt production that had been so central to the team’s success, both with and without Irving.Will Giannis’s teammates keep up the help?As noted, Milwaukee’s chances are inextricably tied to the Greek Freak — and Antetokounmpo has been holding up his end, delivering a superstar performance. Over the past two games, he’s anchored the Bucks with a 30.1 percent usage rate, 64.5 true shooting percentage and 28.9 assist percentage as the team was fighting its way back to draw the series even. But the irony is that those numbers weren’t too different when Milwaukee was falling into its early series hole: In Games 1 and 2, Antetokounmpo had a 30.2 percent usage rate, a 66.3 true shooting percentage and a 28.8 assist percentage.So for the Bucks, the determining factor isn’t merely how well Giannis plays — it’s how much everyone around him contributes. In the two opening losses, Antetokounmpo’s teammates averaged 74 total points and 13 total assists per game, with a 57.3 percent true shooting mark. In the Bucks’ two victories, those numbers skyrocketed to 87 points, 20.5 assists and a 65.2 true shooting percentage.Of particular note has been the strong play of Middleton and an expanded role for Jabari Parker, who was limited to about 12 minutes per game in Games 1 and 2. Parker has come on strong since, averaging 16.5 points (on 54.5 percent shooting), 6.0 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 1.5 steals and only 0.5 turnovers per game in Games 3 and 4. He helped Milwaukee’s bench outscore Boston’s 31-15 in Game 4, an important edge in a matchup decided by just two points.This doesn’t mean Giannis should be taken for granted, of course. He’s personally dominating this series, with his own play putting teammates in a position to produce efficient numbers for themselves. He willed the Bucks to victory in Game 4’s closing seconds, fighting off Tatum under the rim to tip home the game-winning bucket with 5.1 ticks to go. But the biggest difference between Milwaukee’s losses and wins in this series has been how well the Bucks not named “Antetokounmpo” have been able to execute in their supporting roles.Where’s Al Horford?Though Irving was forced to shoulder Boston’s scoring attack after Gordon Hayward went down with injury five minutes into the season, the 2017-18 Celtics’ most valuable player might have been center Al Horford, whose mega-efficient combination of skills make him the unsung catalyst who improves everyone around him.Boston’s first two games against Milwaukee featured Horford at his versatile best. He scored 20 points per game — while needing only 9.5 shots per game to do it — grabbed 8.5 rebounds and dealt out 4 assists. Every time you looked, he was doing some kind of proverbial “little thing,” like setting a key screen, contesting a shot or getting to the line. Despite taking responsibility for only 15.2 percent of Boston’s offensive attempts2Including shots and turnovers. while in the game, Horford managed to personally account for 17.8 percent of all the positive actions that took place on the court (for either team), according to NBA Advanced Stats.Horford didn’t play poorly in the following two games. He still averaged double-digit points and shot better than 50 percent from the floor. But he individually accounted for only 11 percent of the positive events that happened when he was on the floor, and the Celtics went from plus-4.9 points per 100 possessions with him to minus-8.9. On defense in particular, he had few answers for Antetokounmpo’s forays to the basket (in fairness, who does?), as the Bucks’ offensive rating swelled to 119.9 with Horford on the court.One of Horford’s greatest gifts is that he doesn’t need plays called for him to make a big impact. But there’s a fine line between unselfishly playing all-around basketball and not being involved enough, and Horford was probably on the wrong side of that line as Milwaukee chipped away at Boston’s 2-0 lead — especially in Game 4. He’ll need to get back to exerting his influence at both ends of the court in Game 5 for the Celtics to turn this series around.Check out our latest NBA predictions.
For the first time in almost four years, the Ohio State men’s basketball team has earned the top ranking in the country. Duke, who was No. 1 in all major polls this season, suffered a 66-61 loss Wednesday to Florida State and opened the door for OSU to claim the top spot with a win Saturday against Penn State. The Buckeyes survived the Nittany Lions and walked away with a 69-66 victory. OSU is now No. 1 in both the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today coaches’ polls. But the team was not focused on the No. 1 ranking. “Honestly, as a team, we really didn’t say nothing after the game about that,” freshman center Jared Sullinger said. “We just focused on we have Iowa on Wednesday night, and that’s our next matchup.” Coach Thad Matta acknowledged the ranking but said he was more focused on the big picture. “The thing that excites me the most is it’s the second time we’ve been there in a few years, and I think it is great for the program,” he said. “I don’t know how many schools can say that they have been in that position, and we are definitely one of them.” Prior to having the top spot in the AP poll March 5, 2007, the Buckeyes had not claimed that position in 45 years. Senior David Lighty was on the team in 2007 and is the only Buckeye who has been on a No. 1-ranked team. With veteran players at his disposal, Matta said he is not concerned with the new poll. “I think they’re experienced enough to just say, ‘Hey, it is what it is,’” he said. “We have to go out and continue to play basketball to win basketball games.” With their 18-0 record, the Buckeyes have the third best start in school history. The 1960-61 squad started 22-0 and the 1961-62 team opened with 27 straight victories. OSU was ranked fourth in the first AP poll of the season. The team moved up to No. 2 in the fourth week of the poll after then-No. 2 Michigan State and then-No. 3 Kansas State suffered their first losses Nov. 23. Though they acknowledged the rankings at this time of year are not important, the players said they hope they are worthy of the lofty location. “It’s really early, but I think we are very talented,” senior Jon Diebler said. “It’s hard to tell if we are No. 1 or not. Again, we are just going to try and keep getting better every day, and we’re not really going to worry about the rankings.” To maintain the top spot, the Buckeyes likely have to keep improving. Its last four games, against Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan and Penn State, were the team’s only contests this season that ended with single-digit score differences. OSU will host Iowa at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, and Matta said he knows the rankings won’t matter when his team steps on the court. “It doesn’t get you more points; it doesn’t get you stops,” he said. “We have to go out and honor it.”
No. 4 Logan Stieber threw up his arms, victorious for 19th time this season. After knocking off Iowa’s No. 2 Tony Ramos, 7-0, the redshirt freshman finally had a second to breathe. He looked up to see an electric home crowd, all eyes on him. “We haven’t beat Iowa in forever. It’s a big win for us,” Stieber said. For the No. 7 Ohio State wrestling team, Stieber’s win was just the beginning. OSU defeated the No. 2 Iowa Hawkeyes, 21-9, Friday night at St. John Arena. It is their first win against Iowa since Feb. 12, 1966. For OSU coach Tom Ryan, the win was extra special, with Iowa being his alma mater and the place where he was named an All-American twice. “I feel great, I feel great,” Ryan said. “You know, because these guys put so much time into what they do. Six o’ clock mornings, back in the afternoon; sometimes they’re back in the evening. They got eight hours of study tables. They got so many things on their lives.” The Buckeyes improved to 9-2 on the year and 3-2 in the Big Ten Conference. “It shows we can fight a little bit more, at the beginning of the year some close matches weren’t going our way, you know, we weren’t fighting as well, but we had a lot of close matches tonight and we fought well,” Stieber said. It was Iowa’s first loss in the Big Ten and only their second on the entire season, the other being a one-point defeat against No. 1 Oklahoma State. The Hawkeyes took an early 3-0 lead after Iowa’s Matt McDonough took down OSU’s Johnni Dijulius, 5-2. But OSU roared back with five straight wins from Stieber, his younger brother freshman Hunter Stieber, freshman Cam Tessari, redshirt freshman Josh Demas and freshman Derek Garcia. The flurry rocketed OSU to a 15-3 lead. For Logan Stieber, it was his second win in eight days against a top 10-ranked opponent. One-hundred-forty-one-pound Hunter Stieber gave OSU a 6-3 lead, scoring a 4-2 decision against Iowa’s senior Montell Marion, the No. 3 wrestler in the nation. Tessari brought the OSU lead to 9-6 after defeating Iowa’s Mike Kelly, 9-4, in the 149-pound match. Demas followed suit scoring a takedown with 10 seconds remaining in the 157-pound match to secure a 7-3 win against Iowa’s Derek St. John. Garcia narrowly beat Iowa’s redshirt freshman Mike Evans, 6-5. For No. 6 Evans, it was only his third loss on the season. Garcia also claimed the Russ Hellickson Award, which is given to the most outstanding wrestler of the night. “I think the best feeling is beating Iowa,” Garcia said. “Honestly I can guarantee everybody on the team would say the same thing.” Iowa wouldn’t score again until the 174-pound match where sophomore Ethen Lofthouse beat OSU’s sophomore Joe Grandominico, 7-1. Grandominico, who usually wrestles at 157-pounds, started in place of redshirt junior Nick Heflin. Rather, Ryan started Heflin at 184-pounds in place of injured redshirt junior C.J. Magrum. Heflin defeated Iowa’s Vinnie Wagner, 7-4, despite wrestling a weight class up. At 197-pounds, OSU’s freshman Andrew Campolattano beat Iowa’s junior Grant Gambrall giving OSU a 21-6 commanding lead against the Hawkeyes with only one match left to wrestle. By the time Iowa’s heavyweight senior Blake Rasing beat OSU’s Peter Capone, 7-2, an OSU victory was already in hand. The OSU crowd directed chants of “overrated” at Iowa before forming a mass near the entrance of the locker rooms to celebrate what some are calling the Buckeyes’ biggest dual win in program history. “We’re no joke,” Garcia said. “We showed everybody right now that we are real.”