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#pounditSaturday, January 22, 2022

Stories by Aaron Mansfield:

12 matchups to watch in the NBA conference finals

James harden

After an unforgettable offseason and regular season, the highly anticipated NBA playoffs have lived up to expectations. Could this league get any hotter?

The Cavs looked like they were dead, then LeBron James shifted into god mode. Now their title hopes look as strong as they have all season. The injury-riddled Celtics have far surpassed expectations, defeating two teams that appeared to have more talent, including three of the league’s brightest young stars (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons, and Joel Embiid).

In the West, meanwhile, the two best teams have cruised. We now get to see the matchup fans have anticipated all season: Warriors versus Rockets.

With the conference finals getting underway this weekend (Cavs-Celtics Sunday afternoon, Warriors-Rockets Monday night), here are 12 matchups that could very well dictate which teams end up as the final two standing.

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15 players who will shape the NBA playoffs

James harden

This NBA season has been one for the books. Think of all the narratives: the drama-filled Cavs, the injury-riddled Celtics, the red-hot Rockets and Raptors, the crazy trade deadline, the inconsistent Warriors — the list goes on.

With the playoffs approaching (they start this Saturday), we still don’t know which teams will match up. Will Houston square off with Utah, New Orleans, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Minnesota, or Denver? Considering the unpredictability of this season, your guess is as good as mine.

Though we don’t yet know which teams will see each other, we do have an idea of which players will play a salient role in shaping the NBA playoffs. Here’s a look at 15 of those players.

15. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

The Greek Freak has looked a year away from total domination this season. Though many fans expected the Bucks would make the leap to become an Eastern Conference contender this year, the squad has disappointed. They underperformed with Jason Kidd, who was fired midway through the season, and they’ve underperformed with Joe Prunty. Giannis will need to be at his best — he’ll need to be ready now — for Milwaukee to steal a series. He missed Saturday’s game against New York with ankle soreness, the sixth game he’s missed this year.

14. Chris Paul, Houston Rockets

Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey both seemed supremely confident the Chris Paul/James Harden experiment would be a hit. This season has made them look like prophets. The Rockets, behind their voluminous three-point shooting, have been easily the best team in the league, cruising to a 64-16 record. Their postseason success will ultimately boil down to the success of their two stars. Paul has never made it to the NBA Finals — could this be the year he finally breaks through? He has his best supporting cast to date.

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10 future lottery picks to watch in the NCAA Tournament

Michael Porter Jr

After weeks of speculation about which teams would squeak in and who would be left out, after Joe Lunardi frantically updated his Bracketology predictions dozens of times, the NCAA Tournament is finally here.

Aside from the shocking upsets, the dramatic buzzer-beaters, and the emergence of unlikely heroes, one of the best parts of the tournament each year is getting the opportunity to watch future lottery picks — many of whom will be one-and-done — compete with each other at the collegiate level. The 2017 tournament included Kansas’ Josh Jackson, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Duke’s Jayson Tatum, Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen, and Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox, among others.

The top 11 picks in the NBA’s 2017 draft were freshmen or international players, and nine of them played in the tournament. One (Gonzaga’s Zach Collins) made it all the way to the Final Four.

So, which future NBA players should you keep an eye on as the tourney gets underway? Which prospects could blossom into household names this March? Here are 10 future lottery picks to watch.

10. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, G, Kentucky

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10 NBA rookies who have surpassed expectations

Kyle kuzma

With the NBA Draft eight months in the rearview mirror, some teams are likely already wishing for a do-over.

Consider the Philadelphia 76ers, who selected Washington’s Markelle Fultz No. 1 – to unanimous applause from analysts. Though Fultz’s shoulder injury, which has kept him off the court since Oct. 23, was certainly not his fault, his shot looks broken, and that pick now looks questionable. The Sixers would certainly much rather have Donovan Mitchell or Jayson Tatum.

Meanwhile, other teams are thrilled with the results they’ve seen from their 2017 draft class. Consider the Los Angeles Lakers, who, while they’ve gotten mixed results from No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball, snagged Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart with late first-round picks. If we had a redraft, all three would likely be lottery picks.

Other teams still don’t know how to evaluate their 2017 draft. Did the Suns make a good or bad pick in taking Josh Jackson at No. 4? Did the Kings make a good or bad pick in taking De’Aaron Fox at No. 5? At this point, no one really knows.

We do know, however, that a handful of rookies have far outperformed expectations. Here are 10 who have stood out – and made a bunch of teams regret passing on them.

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10 must-watch U.S. athletes at the Winter Olympics

Mikaela Shiffrin

Though the Winter Olympics are sometimes looked at as the “little brother” of the Summer Games — there’s no basketball, track and field, or gymnastics! — the events always prove to be entertaining.

And though there’s one extra knock on the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Games — NHL players won’t be competing — it’s all but certain Americans will still find themselves glued to the action. NBC’s coverage of the 2014 Sochi Games averaged 21.4 million viewers, which is a number comparable to the viewership of an early-round NFL playoff game or a much-hyped regular season game, an impressive feat considering the Games span 17 nights.

With the competitions based around less-heralded sports such as curling, speed-skating, and snowboarding, there are always a few breakout stars. In the 2014 Sochi Games (can you believe it’s been four years?), the U.S. had T.J. Oshie, Mikaela Shiffrin, and Sage Kotsenburg — not to mention the incredible commentary of Johnny Weir.

With this year’s Games less than one month away (they’ll run Feb. 9-25), we thought some of you could use a primer on a handful of the key United States athletes who will compete in South Korea. Here are 10 home-grown athletes who will likely dominate NBC’s coverage.

1. Lindsey Vonn, Skier

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Astros top Yankees 2-1, take 1-0 ALCS lead

The Houston Astros jumped out to a 1-0 series lead over the New York Yankees with a 2-1 win in the series opener in Houston Friday night.

It was a pitchers’ duel early on, with New York’s Masahiro Tanaka and Houston’s Dallas Keuchel both stymying batters. Keuchel amassed six strikeouts in his first four innings of work, and Tanaka had a no-hitter through three.

In the fourth inning, Houston’s offense showed signs of life and the Astros got on the board. Carlos Correa drove home Jose Altuve, and Yuli Gurriel drove home Correa. Those would prove to be the only runs Houston would need.

The Yankees came close to scoring in the following frame. Aaron Judge nailed a line drive to left field, and it looked like Greg Bird would score from second. However, Houston leftfielder Marwin Gonzalez showed off his canon and gunned Bird out at the plate.

Ken Giles, who is now 35/39 on save opportunities this year, closed out the game. Bird drilled a solo shot to right field to put the Yankees on the board with two outs in the ninth inning, but Giles struck out Jacoby Ellsbury to end the game.

Keuchel got the win, while Tanaka, who was marvelous in defeat and only gave up four hits in six innings of work, took the loss.

Game 2 will take place Saturday at 4:30 p.m. EST at Houston’s Minute Maid Park. Luis Severino and Justin Verlander are the expected starting pitchers. The game will air on Fox; it is the lone game in this series that will not appear on FS1.

Syracuse upsets Clemson, ending longest win streak in NCAA Football

Dabo Swinney

The No. 2 Clemson Tigers suffered a massive upset Friday night at the hands of the Syracuse Orange. Syracuse won, 27-24, claiming the victory at home. The Orange fans stormed the field after the upset.

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Kawhi Leonard will miss start of season with thigh injury

Kawhi Leonard

Spurs swingman Kawhi Leonard has missed the team’s training camp and preseason with a left thigh injury. It isn’t clear yet when he will be fully recovered, but we do now know that Leonard will miss some regular season time.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told reporters Friday that Leonard will not play in the team’s regular season game against Minnesota Wednesday in San Antonio.

“He won’t be available,” Popovich said.

Popovich didn’t have a timetable for Leonard’s return.

“I don’t gauge it,” Popovich told reporters. “He’s still rehabbing and when he’s ready, he’ll be ready. I try not to qualify it.”

Leonard last season averaged 25.5 points and 5.8 rebounds. He was a finalist for the NBA’s MVP award.