NBA Preview: It’s the Warriors, and then everyone else
By TIM REYNOLDS
AP Basketball Writer
Tuesday, October 16
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will be at Oracle Arena on Tuesday night, handing the Golden State Warriors what will be their third set of championship rings from the last four seasons.
A banner will be displayed. Highlights will be shown.
And then the Warriors will have to start all over again.
The NBA’s 73rd season starts Tuesday night, beginning a year where LeBron James will play for the Los Angeles Lakers, where Carmelo Anthony will aim to push the Houston Rockets over the top, where Dwyane Wade will take his 16th and final lap around the league. A new arena is opening in Milwaukee, eight teams will have new coaches, and everyone will be looking to see if the Warriors can win a third straight title.
“None of us are ready for this run to come to an end,” said Golden State’s Draymond Green, part of all three Warriors’ titles in this four-year run of dominance. “So we’ve got to continue to approach it like we’ve got zero. And that’s cliche and impossible to do, but you want to try to get as close to that as you possibly can. And that’s my mindset always entering the season.”
They will be the overwhelming favorites, with good reason.
The Warriors still have Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Green, plus added All-Star big man DeMarcus Cousins — coming off an injury — on a bargain $5.3 million deal. And calling all the shots is coach Steve Kerr, who won five rings as a player and now three more as a coach.
“If they don’t win, it’s a failure,” Memphis guard Mike Conley Jr. said. “I know that’s how they feel as well. For us, for the other 29 teams, we’re the underdog. We’re trying to take what they have. It’s a lot easier playing from the underdog perspective than coming in with a lot of expectation.”
In this NBA, everybody else is an underdog.
That even applies to Houston — which won 65 games last season, has the reigning MVP in James Harden, an elite point guard in Chris Paul who re-signed for $160 million this summer, a deep-pocketed owner in Tilman Fertitta and an always-tinkering GM in Daryl Morey. The Rockets had the Warriors against the ropes in last season’s Western Conference finals, leading that series 3-2 yet falling after Paul was lost to a hamstring injury.
“We’ve all got one goal, man,” Harden said. “You’ll keep hearing the same story over and over until I’m not here no more. We’ve got to win a ‘chip. We’ve all got the same goal. We kind of, a little bit, we kind of know what it takes to almost get there. But we haven’t gotten there yet.”
The Warriors are the best team and the Rockets had the best record, but the best player is now in L.A.
After 15 seasons in the Eastern Conference, James — who has played in each of the last eight NBA Finals — has moved West. He signed a four-year deal in July with the Lakers, one that makes him the biggest star on the league’s glitziest franchise. He’s teamed up with talented young players like Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, and former rivals like Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson.
“I’m a basketball player,” James said. “I play ball. That’s what I do and that’s what I live by. And when I do it at the level I do it at, everything else takes care of itself.”
The only certainty in the NBA this season is that James won’t win the East — ending an eight-year run of that, four in Miami and four in Cleveland.
Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto (with the newly acquired Kawhi Leonard) are the top candidates to take over as East champions. The Celtics had a Game 7, at home, to get to the NBA Finals last season and lost to James and Cleveland, but now get Gordon Hayward back and a healthy Kyrie Irving again. Miami has been trying to get Jimmy Butler from Minnesota, and if they do — someone will get Butler before the trade deadline — the Heat may be able to get back into East contention.
It might be Dirk Nowitzki’s last season in Dallas. Gregg Popovich no longer has Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili with him in San Antonio, and the Spurs (who have been battered by injuries, including one to point guard Dejounte Murray) are no lock to extend their 21-year run of playoff appearances. Sneakerheads will have a big season, because the NBA now says players may wear whatever colors of kicks that they want.
There’s plenty of stories.
But in the end, it’ll be all about someone finding a way to beat Golden State — or not.
“I’ll get back to you when somebody cracks that code,” Wade said. “In this game, the most important thing is health. If they stay healthy, it’s tough to beat them. There’s teams that can, but you’ve got to do it, and you’re going to have to do it four times.”
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Column: Busch loss raises questions about NASCAR officiating
By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
Monday, October 15
TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Kurt Busch is not the most sympathetic figure. When he loses a race he was one turn away from winning because he ran out of gas, few likely felt sorry for him.
Then came his post-race assessment in which he criticized NASCAR for blowing two calls that led to him being short on fuel. Because the complaints came from Busch, a polarizing driver with past bad behavior, he didn’t get the condolences he felt he deserved.
There are conspiracy theorists who believe NASCAR officiated the end of Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway in a way that put Busch in position to lose. Of course, the scoring tower could not guarantee Busch would run out of fuel while leading through the final turn in overtime, but his criticism deserves a look.
Busch led a race-high 108 laps as the strongest car in the Stewart-Haas Racing lineup. He led his three other teammates all day as the SHR group had the field covered. The four SHR Fords had a healthy lead on the competition when Alex Bowman brought out the caution that sent the race into overtime.
The SHR cars were already conserving fuel, and those additional laps drained their gas tanks to nearly bone dry. Why? Well, NASCAR didn’t red-flag the race after Bowman’s crash and instead ran five laps under the yellow flag. That’s 13.3 extra miles around Talladega with fuel lights flickering.
Just one fewer lap under caution and Busch doesn’t run out of gas — and likely wins the race. Instead, he led the field to green in overtime — an additional two more laps around the 2.66-mile track — as teammate Kevin Harvick forfeited the gamble and ducked to pit road for gas.
Like many, Busch wondered why there were so many caution laps and why the race wasn’t stopped for a cleanup. Then came another accident, while he was still leading in overtime, and NASCAR did not call a caution. Had the yellow been called on that final lap, Busch probably would have won the race.
Instead, he was still hard on the gas for the final 2 miles and his tank finally went dry with the checkered flag in sight. SHR teammate Aric Almirola slid past Busch’s sputtering car for the win.
“There was two missed calls by NASCAR at the end,” Busch said. “Why did we have an extra yellow flag lap is beyond me — the track was ready to go.”
Busch also blasted the decision not to call a caution for the final accident.
“There was two cars dead in the water,” Busch said of NASCAR’s need to call a caution and send a medical crew to the disabled vehicles.
Busch left Talladega with a 14th-place finish. A victory would have put him into the third round of the playoffs, but that berth instead went to Almirola.
NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell waited until Monday to address Busch’s criticism and was adamant the sanctioning body was correct in its officiating. The head of NASCAR competition said the race was nothing at all like the Truck Series event a day earlier, when that event ended under caution because of a late accident.
“Two different races and every race is different,” O’Donnell said during his weekly appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Every call is a judgment call. The (incident) on Saturday was in front of the field … we always want to try to end under green, but in that case we just felt like we couldn’t. Then on Sunday, very similar in terms of a car hitting the wall, but where it happened was different and in terms of where the field was.”
In other words, because the accident Sunday was behind the leaders, NASCAR preferred to let the drivers race to the finish under green. But that’s a judgment call and one that cost Busch, an unpopular driver with NASCAR brass, an important victory.
While every race is different, officiating should be as close to black and white as possible and NASCAR should never open itself to the idea it intentionally tried to prevent a driver from winning. Once the implication was made, O’Donnell should have been front and center to address it.
The Truck Series race the day before wasn’t NASCAR’s finest moment, either. For at least 15 minutes after the race, the pylon, timing and scoring, and NASCAR’s official website all listed Wendell Chavous as the winner. But Chavous was actually fifth and Timothy Peters was the race winner. Chavous thought he won until he learned all the statistics were incorrect, and NASCAR simply moved on to the next race as if nothing bizarre had happened.
NASCAR has got to tighten up in every area, particularly accountability.
There are five races left in what’s been a trying NASCAR season. Improvement needs to start at the very top.
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Emmanuel Sanders’ taunt comes back to haunt Broncos
By ARNIE STAPLETON
AP Pro Football Writer
Tuesday, October 16
DENVER (AP) — First, Emmanuel Sanders wagged his right index finger in the face of Rams cornerback Troy Hill . Now, he’s pointing it right at himself after Denver’s fourth consecutive loss.
After his taunt came back to haunt the Broncos, Sanders accepted the blame for Denver’s latest loss in a monthlong tailspin that has fans in the Rocky Mountains bracing for back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1971-72.
“I guess this loss is on me,” Sanders said after the Rams escaped frigid Denver as the league’s lone unbeaten team following a 23-20 win Sunday over the Broncos (2-4), who became the first team in NFL history to allow a 200-yard rusher in back-to-back games.
Sanders thought he had a 44-yard TD catch from Case Keenum as he tumbled into the end zone in the first quarter. He sprung to his feet and wagged a finger at Hill.
Side judge Brad Freeman threw the flag, calling a personal foul on Sanders for taunting.
Ordinarily, the flag wouldn’t have mattered much because the 15-yard penalty would have been enforced on the ensuing kickoff and Brandon McManus, after giving Denver a 7-6 lead with an extra point, undoubtedly would still have booted the ball out of the end zone for a touchback.
Upon review, however, it turned out Hill had the last laugh, having touched Sanders before he crossed the goal line.
That put the ball at the 1.
The penalty pushed them back to the 16.
After runs of 1 and 5 yards, Keenum’s throwaway on third-and-4 brought in McManus for a field goal instead of an extra point and his 28-yarder cut Denver’s deficit to 6-3.
They never did get the lead and those four points would have made the difference in a three-point loss.
“Me, honestly, I feel like the league is getting soft,” Sanders said. “I’m having fun. I didn’t do anything crazy to the guy besides say, ‘Hey, I got you on that play.’ I pointed my finger at him. And they threw the flag.”
Sanders said he’s done that his whole career and has never been flagged for it.
“It was a great throw by Case, I came down with it, big play, emotions are high. It’s not like I walked up to him and head-butted him or something,” Sanders said. “But it cost my team. We lost by three points. I feel like we could have easily punched that ball in and gotten four (more) points. I guess this loss is on me.”
Vance Joseph, who fell to 7-15 as head coach, talked to Sanders on the sideline.
“He can’t do that,” Joseph said. “He knows that.”
Well, he does now.
“I don’t think I did anything too crazy besides point a finger and tell the guy, ‘Hey I got you on that play.’ I don’t see the penalty in that,” Sanders said. “But I learned from it and like I said, it cost my team. I’ve just got to keep chugging along and don’t do it again.”
The costly foul from a nine-year veteran came one week after Sanders’ fellow SMU alum, rookie receiver Courtland Sutton , chased down Marcus Maye at the 1 following a 104-yard interception return at game’s end, leaving the Jets safety with the longest such play without a score in NFL history.
“We played two of the best teams in the league, the Chiefs and the Rams, and the games came down to crunch time. And that just shows you what kind of team that we are,” linebacker Shane Ray declared. “We’re a great football team.”
Not at 2-4 they aren’t.
Even Fox play-by-play man Dick Stockton dissed the Broncos by beginning the telecast saying, “the undefeated Rams take on the Denver Nuggets.”
Other takeaways from Week 6 included:
CUTTING OUT COLIN
The 49ers posted dozens of photos on its website of past games against the Packers in advance of their Monday night game without at first including any of Colin Kaepernick, who set an NFL record for QBs by rushing for 181 yards in a playoff win against Green Bay on Jan. 12, 2013, threw for 413 yards in a season-opening win against the Packers in 2013, and led a winning drive in a playoff game in Green Bay on Jan. 5, 2014.
“We have fond memories of those games and that should have been displayed on our website,” the team said in a statement after adding images of Kaepernick. “This oversight does not properly reflect the appreciation our ownership and this team have for Colin.”
Tom Brady made light of yelling at Rob Gronkowski in an Instagram post following the Patriots’ 43-40 win over Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.
In the second quarter, the sideline microphones picked up Brady yelling at Gronkowski to stand up out of his stance, and Brady ended up calling a timeout on the play.
Gronk came up big in the fourth quarter with a stiff-arm that helped him gain 42 yards and set up a field goal that gave New England a 40-33 lead.
“Gronk, you can line up however you want if you keep stiff-arming people like that,” Brady said.
Al Riveron, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating, acknowledged for a second straight week that officials goofed in not calling a running back for lowering his head and barreling into a defender.
In his weekly video, Riveron said Patriots rookie Sony Michel should have been flagged for lowering his head to initiate contact with Colts safety Clayton Geathers in Week 5.
A week earlier, Riveron noted that Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt should have been flagged for doing the same thing to Broncos safety Justin Simmons.
Although Hunt got away without a penalty, his illegal hit did result in a $26,739 fine.
Riveron defended referee Clete Blakeman’s crew, which didn’t flag Steelers receiver Justin Hunter for blocking Bengals DB Tony McRae beyond 1 yard past the line of scrimmage on Antonio Brown’s 31-yard TD catch from Ben Roethlisberger with 10 seconds left that gave Pittsburgh a 28-21 win on Sunday.
“The contact is initiated by the defender,” Riveron said on Twitter, “and therefore the receiver is not responsible for this contact.”
NFL rule 8, Section 5, Article 4 states: “Blocking more than 1 yard beyond the line of scrimmage by an offensive player prior to a pass being thrown is offensive pass interference.”
The rule book, however, doesn’t specify an exception for defenders initiating contact.
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Steelers ready to plow forward with – or without – Bell
By WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
Monday, October 15
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Le’Veon Bell’s stall inside the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room has been untouched for months. The Pittsburgh Penguins jersey. The black-and-yellow Jordans. Sweatpants. Cleats. His shoulder pads. Everything remains the same as it was when Bell walked out of the team’s facility in January to begin his standoff with the club.
The only thing that’s been disturbed is the chair. Some days a teammate’s workout clothes dangle from the back of it. On others — like Monday — a Steeler uses the seat as a spot to throw his lunch plate.
When Bell returns to reclaim his spot is uncertain. The first day of the team’s bye week came and went without Bell coming in to sign his one-year franchise tender. What’s becoming increasingly clear, however, is that the Steelers are just fine moving on with Bell, or without him.
The anger over Bell’s decision to not report in time for the regular season opener has subsided. In its place is something akin to exasperation and resolve. One of coach Mike Tomlin’s favorite metaphors is to describe each season as a train that’s on the move.
Pittsburgh (3-2-1) appears to be picking up steam. Bell is standing still. If he’ll ever be able to catch up in time to have any impact on Pittsburgh’s season is anyone’s guess. The last six weeks have been so eventful beyond Bell’s absence — from a sluggish start by the defense to wide receiver Antonio Brown’s weekly histrionics — the players aren’t even getting hit up for inside information on Bell’s plans when they get home from work.
“They know our sole focus is on us winning football games,” right tackle Marcus Gilbert said. “They’re not bothering me with that. It’s strictly about football. Ask me about anything else, the guys on the team currently. But until he shows up, then we can’t talk Le’Veon.”
And at the moment, there’s no reason to. Not with the way James Conner is running the ball. The second-year back rolled up 111 yards rushing and two touchdowns in Pittsburgh’s 28-21 victory over Cincinnati on Sunday, his third game of at least 100 yards and two scores in the first six weeks. Only four other players in NFL history have done that.
“James just wants to put his hand in the pile and be one of the reasons why we win,” Tomlin said. “He wants to prove that (he belongs).”
There appears to be very little proving left to do.
Conner, a former Pitt star, set an Athletic Coast Conference record for touchdowns during his college career but has become perhaps better known for his battle with cancer in 2015 and 2016. On the same day he helped the Steelers to their 18th win in 21 trips to Paul Brown Stadium, he shared a pregame moment with a young fan waging his own war with the disease.
Conner is aware of the platform he’s been given but is also doing his best to keep the focus on his job. He has a high level of respect for Bell — who tweeted out his congratulations after one of Bell’s punishing runs against the Bengals — and wants to continue to be a beacon of hope for cancer patients.
At the same time, he also just wants to tuck the ball under his right arm and run as hard as he can for as long as he can. Asked to describe why he’s becoming more successful as the weeks pass, Conner is quick to point to an offensive line that hasn’t allowed a sack or made him work too hard behind the line of scrimmage during Pittsburgh’s modest two-game winning streak.
“The goons up front, it always starts up front with the O-line,” Conner said. “As they go, we go.”
The question becomes which way the Steelers go when Bell does decide to pull on his familiar No. 26. He considers himself one of the best all-around backs in the league and has the accolades — two-time All-Pro, three-time Pro Bowler — to prove it. Yet he also hasn’t been hit in nine months and has kept a decidedly low profile, at least in terms of his physical activity, during his sabbatical.
“However it all shapes up, we know he’s a player that can’t be replaced, he’s a special player,” Gilbert said. “But any guy that we put in there will be a different type of player. Him and James are different type of running backs and they’ll complement each other really well.”
Then Gilbert paused ever so slightly and drilled down beyond platitudes to reality.
“Like I said, I don’t really want to talk Le’Veon to you until he shows up,” Gilbert said. “Be interested to see what kind of shape he’s in and how he can help better this team because it’s a different outfit than last year.”
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