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NBA Star Power Index: Lakers remain lost without LeBron James; Jayson Tatum, Damian Lillard finding groove

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Welcome back to NBA Star Power Index: A weekly gauge of the players who are most controlling the buzz around the league. Inclusion on this list isn’t necessarily a good thing. It simply means you’re capturing the NBA world’s attention. This is also not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order as it pertains to the buzz they’re generating. This column will run every week throughout the regular season. 

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LeBron’s shot to Isaiah Stewart’s face was heard ’round the NBA world on Sunday. It earned him a one-game suspension, which he served in the Lakers’ loss to the Knicks on Tuesday. Here’s the crime:

Precedent suggests the punishment easily could’ve been harsher. Back in 2015, J.R. Smith was suspended two playoff games for a similar strike on Jae Crowder. 

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The Lakers are now just 4-7 without LeBron in the lineup. Even with him they’re barely treading water: 5-3 with three of those wins over the Pistons and Rockets (twice) and a negative point differential, per Cleaning the Glass. The Lakers just don’t have the horses to survive without LeBron, even in the short term. 

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Tatum has had a horrific start to his season, but he’s turning it around of late. Over his last four games, he’s averaging 33.5 points on 50 percent shooting. Boston has won three straight, though let’s keep this in proper perspective: Those wins came over the Lakers (in LeBron’s first game back from injury), Rockets and Thunder. Tatum went 1 of 9 from 3 against Houston, his most recent outing. 

All of which is to say, Tatum and the Celtics, 10-8 on the season and winners of six of their last eight, are far from out of the woods; disturbing trends remain, such as Tatum’s isolation insistence. Entering play on Wednesday, Tatum is averaging 6.2 isolation possessions per game, third most in the league, but he’s shooting just 32 percent on those possessions with a sub-40 effective field goal percentage.

We know Tatum is a one-on-one player by nature. And he’s a great individual scorer, don’t get it twisted. When he’s feeling himself, he borders on indefensible. 

But when those shots are not going in, that’s a lot of dribbling. Marcus Smart has already called out Tatum (and Jaylen Brown) for basically wanting to play on their terms, not being willing passers (Tatum is the biggest threat the Celtics have yet he’s only using that leverage to create 3.5 assists per game). And now there is this quote — albeit anonymous — from an Eastern Conference assistant coach in Tim Bontempts’ recent story on ESPN.com:

“I don’t think [Tatum] cares about winning now, and if he does, it is on his terms. He doesn’t want to score 15 and win. He wants to score 39 and win.”

Stay tuned in Boston. 

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Lillard’s ice-cold start to the season has been well chronicled. Like Tatum, he’s finding his rhythm of late. The Blazers have quietly won five of their last six. Lillard scorched the Sixers for 39 points on Saturday. He’s 10 for his last 21 from 3 and has been heating up for a while now. 

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There’s been a lot of talk about Lillard having to adjust to a different offensive approach under new coach Chauncey Billups, who has stressed more ball movement and (marginally) less reliance on individual creation from Lillard and CJ McCollum. It doesn’t go far in explaining Lillard’s early struggles; he’s still in total control of the offense and he’s getting the same amount of shots. 

But it’s true, he is not dominating the ball quite as much. Pick-and-rolls account for 40 percent of his shots this season, down from 46 percent last season, per Synergy. 

Overall, Lillard’s usage is down from 34.1 last season to 31.6 percent entering play on Wednesday, per CTG. Last season, Lillard, on average, held onto the ball for 6.14 seconds every time he touched it, per NBA.com. This season that number is down to 5.14. Lillard is also taking one fewer dribble per touch this season, which adds up. 

As a team, the Blazers are averaging about 20 more passes per game than last season. That’s translating to six more points per game via assist. Their secondary assists are also up almost one per game — in part a reflection of the backside ball movement out of Lillard and McCollum double-teams. 

Are these subtle shifts making a difference for Portland as an overall offense? It depends on your perspective. The Blazers are scoring five fewer points per game this season, per CTG, but offense is down across the board. Relative to league average production, Portland is actually a point better per 100 on the field this year, per Basketball-Reference.com.

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That might sound like hair-splitting, but like Portland’s defense, which statistically looks about the same as last season (awful), these are strategic shifts intended to diversify their postseason profile. Dallas is doing the same thing with Luka Doncic. Relying on one guy to play hero every night has proven to have a postseason ceiling. The Blazers are trying to break through that a little bit at a time, and Lillard is still finding his (slightly) new way. 

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Don’t look now, but Porzingis is playing the best basketball of his Mavericks career. He’s scored at least 20 points in seven straight games, the longest such streak of his career. Over that stretch, he’s averaging 26 points on 52.8/40.5/94.3 shooting splits. 

On Tuesday night, Porzingis hung 30 points and seven boards on the Clippers. He had thee huge buckets in overtime, all courtesy of attacking, downhill movement; one on a slick drive and finish, another on his own putback after a beautiful cut, and a pull-up jumper. 

There are some slight changes to Porzingis’ role. Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd is posting him up and facilitating offense through him a bit more; he’s assisting on almost 13 percent of Dallas’ buckets, by far a career-high rate. Porzingis remains a perimeter-based player, but when he’s in rhythm, which he is right now, he’s a three-level threat. He scores on offensive boards. He hangs around the rim for Doncic drop-offs. He cuts here and there. You saw it all on Tuesday night. 

This is a visibly livelier, springier, more energetic version of Porzingis. And he’s enjoying himself, probably the most important element of all. Porzingis, in a Luka-centric offense, is one of those players who is easy to spot when he’s bummed out. 

“I’m just feeling free to play my game,” Porzingis said after Dallas’ win over the Clippers. “My teammates are trusting me. My coaches are trusting me and I’m out there just having fun. If you’re not having fun then it’s tough to play and give your all, but I feel like this year we have that kind of environment. We’re just playing hard for each other and having fun out there.”

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Patriots’ Mac Jones made his preseason debut against the Panthers. Here’s how it went.

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The last time New England quarterback Mac Jones took the field for a game, the Patriots lost, 47-17, against the Buffalo Bills in the 2021 AFC wild card round. On Friday night, Jones got to see some playing time under the lights, as he started in the home game against the Carolina Panthers

Jones did not play in the team’s preseason premiere against the New York Giants, but he got his chance to kick off his sophomore year during Week 2 of the preseason.

From warmups to the team entrance, Jones was fired up to be in front of the Gillette Stadium crowd, and the home fans reciprocated the love.

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The Patriots offense got off to a slow start, going three-and-out on its first and second offensive drives. Its third drive was a different story, going 10 plays for a touchdown.

The highlight of the series was a beautiful 45-yard completion from Jones to receiver Nelson Agholor that set them up well for the eventual score. 

Jones, who changed his offseason workout routine and has been open about his diet, showed off his athletic ability by rushing in the red zone for seven yards. Then, a two-yard run from Ty Montgomery put the Patriots on the board to give them the lead. Jones was done for the night after that, finishing 4-for-8 for 61 yards.

The second season for a highly drafted quarterback, especially one who starts in his first year, is an integral one, and while Jones’ preseason debut was nothing crazy, he was able to shake the rust off.

Heading into a season where he knows the coaching staff and is familiar with the offense, Jones should improve from his rookie year. Training camp was not too impressive for the offense, which has no official coordinator and instead will be led by a combination of Joe Judge and Matt Patricia, two coaches with not much offensive experience.

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However, the connection between Jones and Agholor is what concerned fans can look at for hope as the preseason soon comes to a close.



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Drew McIntyre and Roman Reigns finally clash on SmackDown! | WWE on FOX

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Drew McIntyre and Roman Reigns finally stepped into the ring face-to-face, leaving The Universal Champion on the ground without his titles. 



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‘It’s everything’: Johnson leads Canada through semifinal for chance at gold – Sportsnet.ca

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EDMONTON — After an undefeated run through their first six tests at the 2022 World Junior Championship, Canada will meet its biggest on Saturday night, under the lights at Rogers Place. The red and white are going for gold.

“It’s everything,” Canadian standout Logan Stankoven said of the opportunity awaiting them, a wide grin spread across his face after his side took down Czechia 5-2 on Friday to advance. “There’s no place I’d rather be than playing for the gold tomorrow, on our home soil, in front of the fans.”

For the second straight game, it was Stankoven and his linemates who played a lead role in guiding Canada to the win column, he and wingers Kent Johnson and Tyler Foerster keeping their crown as the team’s most dominant line heading into the tournament’s finale.

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After Stankoven took his turn at a dominant performance to clinch Wednesday’s quarterfinal, Friday’s tilt was Johnson’s time to show the world what he can do.

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The Columbus Blue Jackets prospect was certainly due for a big night. Entering this semifinal with the most shots of any skater in the tournament, and only one goal to show for it — albeit a spectacular one that saw him pull off The Michigan — Johnson finally saw the floodgates creak open a little bit more on Friday.

It started as it has for his line the past few games — a dominant shift in the offensive zone in which he, Stankoven and Foerster whirled around the opposing defenders looking for the right moment to strike. Eventually, it came on the heels of a Stankoven-to-Foerster look, the chance leading to a rebound that found Johnson in the slot. After pouring on shot after shot every game for the past two weeks, the 19-year-old made no mistake.

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But it was as a setup man in the second period that Johnson truly flexed his offensive muscle. Ten minutes into the frame, he was dancing along the wall and drawing defenders towards him before flipping a beautiful backhand over to a streaking Stankoven, who put it away. Five minutes later, he was loading up a slapper at the top of the point on the power play, only to fake out the Czech defenders and instead dish it softly to a waiting Mason McTavish, who wired home the signature one-timer he’s burned many a goalie with during this tournament.

“It’s just incredible some of the passes he makes,” Stankoven said of Johnson post-game. “The things he does are crazy, and it just goes to show how great of a player he is. He’s pretty nifty.”

Added Connor Bedard, who added to Canada’s goal tally with a gorgeous snipe of his own in the first period: “He’s probably the smoothest player I’ve ever seen, just the way he can find seams and look guys off.”

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Key to Johnson’s standout performance over the course of the tournament has been the two players he’s been able to hop over the boards with, too. While the rest of Canada’s lineup has seemed in constant flux, with head coach Dave Cameron shuffling his lines in search of the right combination of skill-sets — even splitting up Bedard and McTavish for Friday’s semifinal — the trio of Johnson, Stankoven and Foerster has been a no-doubter game in and game out.

“I think [it’s] just our compete level, and being able to create chances off the forecheck,” Stankoven said of why his line has been able to emerge as the squad’s best. “I thought at the beginning of the tournament there wasn’t as much of that, but as the tournament’s gone on we’ve found our chemistry and know where each other are, so it’s been great.”

Even with the sterling night from the trio, putting away Czechia — who entered Friday’s game fresh off upsetting the similarly-undefeated Americans — was no easy assignment. Things got particularly dicey in the second period, as the Czechs picked up steam and started making a strong push, peppering Dylan Garand from all angles.

The netminder stayed calm and composed, looking as unflappable as he has each time he’s been in the cage over these past two weeks, holding the Czechs at bay.

In the third, though, Czechia finally made things interesting, sniping twice in a two-minute span to cut the host’s lead in half, before Joshua Roy tucked home Canada’s fifth to put his team’s minds at ease.

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“They’re a good team and they didn’t get away from their game at all. They pushed back, and they wanted to climb their way back into the game,” Stankoven said of that late chaos. “Obviously when they made it 4-2, we realized, ‘Hey, we’ve got to shut this thing down and make sure that we play well enough defensively.’ And that fifth goal sealed the game.”

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With Czechia dispatched, the page now turns to Saturday night, where months of preparation and weeks of toil out on the Rogers Place ice will culminate in one 60-minute chance at history.

“We’re going for the gold. That’s what we come for,” coach Cameron said of the task at hand. “It’s not going to be easy. I mean, the last couple of games showed the nitty gritty of it — it’s a grind. So, we’re excited about the challenge, but we also realize it’s going to be a battle.”

If there’s any solace to be taken, it’s that the red and white will march into the tournament’s finale with some experience under their belt, a number of this 2022 group’s leaders having claimed gold at last year’s U18 Championship in Texas.

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Bedard, Stankoven, and Brennan Othmann all put up goals in the gold-medal game during that championship run. That education is crucial, Cameron explained, because there’s simply no other way to get it.

“One of the things you can’t practice is pressure,” the coach said. “You can talk about it all you want, but the pressure of the game, the pressure of a shootout, and all that — you can practice it until hell freezes over, but you can’t duplicate that pressure.”

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On Saturday night, Canada will find out just how battle-tested they are, just how much they’ve learned on the paths that led them to this moment. For McTavish, the team’s captain, who’s dominated this tournament to the tune of eight goals and 15 points through six games, that final battle for gold can’t come soon enough.

“It’s something special,” he said Friday at Rogers Place, a maple leaf-adorned hat pulled low over his curls. “You know, it’s why you play the game. Every kid dreams about the gold-medal game.

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“Hopefully we can take advantage of the opportunity.”

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