Monday Morning Update: January 2, 2017

Isaiah Thomas and James Harden go crazy, Jaro goes to Bridgeport, and the Giants go to Green Bay

1. Isiah Thomas takes over

Isaiah Thomas

As someone whose height totals will never be all that impressive, I’ve always had an affinity for more low-to-the-ground basketball players like Isaiah Thomas. That said, I’m not sure even I saw his performance in the final game of 2016 coming.

If you don’t know by now, Thomas lit up Boston’s TD Garden for 52 points during the Celtics’ December 30 matchup against former glory-day rivals the Miami Heat. What’s more, despite the fact that this particular showing put Thomas in the company of greats like Larry Bird and Kevin McHale as the fourth-highest total in a single game in team history, it wasn’t so much of an anomaly this year. Thomas has been shooting and scoring at rates far above his career averages, and even above his highest points so far this year, and the 52-point-performance was only the latest (and greatest) installment.

Despite all that, the most impressive part of Thomas’ game was the ay in which he scored 52 points. In doing so, he scored the most points any Celtic has in the fourth quarter, pouring in 29 points as he tied the team to his back and willed them to a three-point victory.

Chide him for finishing 0 assists if you wish, but Boston needed every inch, ounce, and points out of Thomas they could get. With the team lacking a true wing scoring threat in today’s run-and-gun NBA, they’ll need more of these performances from Thomas if they want to make any noise in the playoffs this year.

2. Start shining James Harden’s MVP trophy

It’s going to be fun to watch people say James Harden shouldn’t win the MVP at the end of the season, even if the Rockets do fall int he playoffs. Those people will be wrong, but you and I, we can just enjoy watching them pull their hair out over the bearded one’s new hardware.

Harden’s ability to rack up points has found it’s platonic ideal paired with Mike D’Antoni’s supercharged offense. I noted how well Harden had been playing to start the season in the seven-seconds-or-less offense, but I expected some kind of regression from him as we moved out of the first month of the season. I certainly didn’t foresee him carving his own spot in the NBA history books by becoming the first player to amass 50 points, 15 boards and 15 assists in one game. Harden is the only one to do it, not Jordan, or LeBron or Kobe or Magic or anyone else.

If Harden’s muscle’s and tendons aren’t worn down to dust at the end of the year, it’s going to be tough to deny him the MVP trophy. His usage rate is an absurd 33.6 percent (according to the wonderful people at Basketball-Reference.com), good for fourth in the league, and he’s leading in minutes played and assists while still scoring at a career high number.

In fact, if there’s anyone that will steal the MVP away from the Beard, it’s the one point guard with an even better usage rate than Harden, and that’s Westbrook. As predicted, Westbrook has been a one-man force in OKC this year as he tries his best to fill Durant’s shoes.

It’s only a December, and the NBA season is a marathon, a slog, not a sprint. We’ll have to see which #1 guard is #1 come playoff time.

3. College football’s Empire Strikes Back

CFP National Championship - Alabama v Clemson

It seems like New Year’s Eve’s first round of the long-awaited College Football Playoff turned out to merely be a formality.

The southern representatives, Alabama and Clemson, rolled over their mid-Western and Pacific counterparts, respectively, walloping Washington and owning Ohio State on the way to the big dance. That means we’re getting a sequel for the college football title game, but it’s probably the best scenario we could have asked for.

As sequel’s go, this one is pretty epic. In fact, it reminds me of a certain favorite of mine from a Galaxy far far away. We’ve got the Evil Empire, churning out more frightening armies and arsenals by the minute in Alabama, against a (not quite) ragtag group of underdogs, led by a lovable leader in Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers.

Now, I’m not exactly expecting Saban to tell anyone he’s their daddy in this finale, but I wouldn’t rule it out, either. Star Wars puns aside, this one has everything you could ask for, including two sides that don’t seem to like each other too much, with one seeking to cement their status and another looking for revenge.

But do keep in mind how Empire ends. Our charismatic hero is left nursing a grave wound after an almost fatal fight against the most powerful evil in the galaxy, and the Evil Empire is left looking as dominant as ever. Something tells me the game may not be all that different.

4. Jaro, we hardly knew ye

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Thus endeth the (not-so) great Three Goalie Experiment.

In a strange and frustrating season for the Islanders that only gets more so by the day, former all-star goaltender Jaroslav Halak was unceremoniously waived, not claimed, and assigned to the AHL Bridgeport Sound Tigers this weekend. Quite a fall for a guy who led the team to an exciting final season in Nassau Coliseum.

In the end, Halak is probably to blame for his dreadful drop in status during 2016. After impressing observers in his first year on the Island, he responded poorly to injury and became vocal about what was an objectively bad situation in the Islanders decision to carry three netminders on the big league roster. He made it clear he thought someone should be in Bridgeport or elsewhere, and the Islanders decided to make it him.

His play this season hadn’t helped, but you have to believe his comments in the offseason, coupled with his agent’s Twitter tirade and a refusal to talk to the media after costing the team a game against the Wild, was more to blame than his play between the pipes.

While it’s a blessing the Isles won’t be carrying a trio of people for a position that features one starter, it’s no cause for celebration.

Rather, it’s just another example of how inept this team is, and how toxic the environment can be for many players, whether young prospects trying to learn the ropes, or veterans looking for some respect and a chance to keep their spot. Hope John Tavares isn’t playing too close attention…

5. Finally, a true Winter Classic 

I can’t quite keep straight whether yesterday’s contest in Toronto was the Winter Classic or the Centennial Classic or the Heritage Classic or the Classic Classic, but the game really was a “classic” yesterday.

The game’s newest star, Auston Matthews, shined on the biggest stage, finally getting some big-time TV minutes in the U.S. (well, big-time for regular season hockey) and seeming like the best player on the ice for much of it as he notched his 19th and 20th goals of the year. The game featured a comeback, a literal-last-second-goal, and a brilliant game-winner from the young star. What more could you ask for?

Imagine if the NHL could get out of its own way. Instead of using the game to promote Matthews as the next American superstar, this will likely be used as an example of how great the outdoor games are, meaning we’ll get a dozen of them next year.

The outdoor games are great, but their frequency is making them lose their luster, not like the glut of NFL games we now have. The NHL needs to fight it’s instinct to drive a good thing into the ground and cut back on the outdoor games.

It will make true “classics,” like Sunday’s, have the impact that a classic should.

6. The US gets revenge over the big bad neighbor to the North

The “2016 was a dumpster fire” meme is a bit played out, but if there’s anyone glad to see the calendar turn, it’s probably the folks at U.S. Hockey. They were lampooned early

They were ridiculed early on for some strange lineup choices during the team making process for the World Cup of Hockey, and for their emphasis on beating their big bad neighbor to the North. Then the tournament arrived, and, let’s just say that things didn’t go too well.

At least the future looks bright. While Team Canada may be about to add Connor McDavid to its roster, the U.S. seems like it may finally have the firepower to compete. Matthews will join the stars and stripes as soon, and the still maturing players appear to hold some serious promise.

So much promise, in fact, that they sent US Hockey out on a high note, topping Canada in dramatic fashion. With young players like the Islanders’ Kiefer Bellows and goal-scorers like Colin White, Jordan Greenway and Jeremy Bracco, 2017 may be much happier than 2016 for American hockey fans.

7. The Big 10 takes a big hit

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I’m not the biggest college football fan out there, but when I do tune in to some “amateur” pigskin, it’s typically the Big 10.

It has perhaps the best rivalry and annual showdown in the land each year with Michigan vs. Ohio State. It had three teams with legitimate arguments that they should be in the college football playoffs in the aforementioned Buckeyes and Wolverines, along with the Penn State Nittany Lions. It has captivating coaches in Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh and the rest of the bunch. It really has just about everything.

Unfortunately, this year, “everything” includes big bowl losses. The conference’s most famous and talented teams, led by those charismatic coaches and that play in that big rivalry game, were routed in their bowl games. In the end, the argument of whether Michigan or Ohio State deserved to be dancing was pointless—neither seemed worthy this weekend.

The conference’s hopes now lie with Penn State in their Rose Bowl matchup against maybe the hottest team in the country in USC. I think when all is said and done, the Big 10 may be the Big 0 this bowl season.

8. Patriots roll, we yawn

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In what should be highly stressing if entirely unsurprising news for those with working moral compasses, the Patriots have a golden path to the Super Bowl, which will keep them home in Foxboro until they board the plane to Houston.

Big yawn. Old news. What else is new.

It would be nice, if, for once, the AFC could do something to knock the Patriots off their perennial spot atop the conference. I understand that the team doesn’t win or even get to, the Super Bowl every year, but they seem to occupy the favorite’s position to do so season after season.

This year looks to be one of the easiest roads the Pats have had in a while. They’ll stay at home the whole time, and face a slew of opponents that have been ravaged by injury and seem incomplete at best. When their biggest looming threat is Alex Smtih’s Chiefs and the Steelers, I like the Pats chances.

Maybe one of these years the AFC, and the NFL as a whole can take a page out of the Giants’ playbook, actually, stand up to these damn bullies, and keep them out of the playoffs.

Speaking of which….

9. Lambeau looms

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The Giants had a pretty impressive regular season. They went 4-2 in their conference, were the only blemishes on the record of the best team in the league, and won 11 games when all was said and done.

The defense has been ferocious, and it may have the DPOY lurking in its backfield. The offense has tons of (mostly unrealized) potential, and the team has really made improvement under a first-year head coach.

Their reward for all that? A trip to Lambeau to face a 10-win team that hasn’t lost since Thanksgiving featuring the best QB in football. Some reward.

Maybe I’m already starting to talk myself into this matchup, but despite the fact that most Giant fans said this was the matchup they dreaded, there are reasons for hope in Big Blue country.

The defense has gotten stronger has the year has gone on, and it will have the help of experience in matching up against Green Bay in this contest. The Giants playmakers have settled into their roles much better than they looked back in week five, with Odell Beckham seeming to get a grip, not even taking the bait against Josh Norman, Sterling Shepard finishing an impressive rookie season, and Cruz looking to cement his legacy with one last deep run.

The season will likely lie on the shoulders of the men up front, however. If Eli and the offensive line can step their games up when it counts, the Giants could be deadly.

But that’s a big if.

Stay tuned to ChinMusicPod.com for our official playoff predictions in the coming week……

Have a good week, everybody. For more, follow @MurraySportTalk on Twitter.

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