Say hello to the hottest team in the NBA


Say hello to the hottest team in the NBA

From Comcast SportsNetOKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Reggie Jackson gave an unexpected spark for the surging Oklahoma City Thunder.But it was star Kevin Durant who scored 35 points as the Thunder extended their winning streak to nine games with a 92-88 win over the New Orleans Hornets on Wednesday night."Reggie has been here for a year now," Durant said. "He knows what it takes. He's not pouting that he's not playing. He's coming in and working hard every single day, just waiting on his chance, and coach gave him a chance tonight."That shows how much he believes in all of us. He would have done that with anybody, and Reggie was the guy that came in and he gave us a really, really big spark."I'm really proud of him, his defensive intensity, hitting shots, just playing with a lot of energy. I'm glad he got that opportunity.With the Thunder trailing by 11 points late in the third quarter, Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks went with a small lineup, inserting Jackson alongside backup point guard Eric Maynor, Kevin Martin and Durant, and the Thunder closed the quarter on a 7-0 run. A 9-2 run, capped by a dunk by Durant, put the Thunder ahead 67-64.Jackson played most of the fourth quarter, finishing with five points. It was his first action since Dec. 1 against New Orleans and only his 11th appearance for the Thunder in 22 games this season. He played for the D-League's Tulsa 66ers on Saturday."You've just got to stay ready," Jackson said. "Of course it's tough, but once you get out there, especially in this atmosphere, it's easy to get going."With the win, the Thunder matched the second-best start in franchise history at 18-4. The Seattle SuperSonics started 20-2 in the 1993-94 season and the Thunder started 18-4 last season.It was the Thunder's third win over the Hornets in the past four weeks and seventh straight in the series. Brian Roberts scored 16 points to lead New Orleans, which lost its fifth straight game.Still, coach Monty Williams wasn't entirely displeased."I thought we competed tonight," Williams said. "I thought we brought an edge. Obviously we lost the game, but when we compete that way and keep our turnovers down, you give yourselves a chance."Greivis Vasquez missed a 3-point attempt in the closing seconds that would have given New Orleans the lead. Thabo Sefolosha corralled the rebound and made the clinching free throws for the Thunder.Oklahoma City, the league's highest-scoring team, entered the game with a 106-point average, but had its run of 12 straight triple-digit games end as it had to fight back simply to win against the worst team in the Western Conference.The Hornets, who fell 77-70 on Tuesday night against Washington, figured their best chance to stay with the Thunder was to keep the game low-scoring and that strategy worked for most of three quarters.The Hornets led 62-51 after a basket by Austin Rivers with 2:01 left in the third quarter before the 16-2 spurt by Oklahoma City spanning the third and fourth quarters.The Hornets regained the lead twice after that, but a 3-pointer by Martin put the Thunder ahead for good at 73-72 with 6:20 left. Still, Oklahoma City struggled to pull away.A three-point play by Durant with 1:12 left pushed the Thunder's lead to 89-84, but Anthony Davis made 1 of 2 free throws with 18.5 seconds left and New Orleans grabbed the rebound on the miss.Roberts made a 3-pointer with nine seconds left to pull the Hornets within 89-88.Durant made 1 of 2 free throws with 8.1 seconds left. The Thunder scored 34 points in the fourth quarter, two fewer than they did in the first half."For whatever reason, we started the game off out of sync offensively," Brooks said. "Like I talk to the guys all the time and what we talk about every day, is that the defense needs to be there."In the fourth quarter, Brooks said, "We got aggressive and I thought we passed the ball much better, but we were making shots. It was just a combination of a few things. Our defensive intensity picked up."With help from 12 points by Ryan Anderson, New Orleans led most of the way in the first half and was up 44-36 at halftime. Oklahoma City, which entered the game second in the NBA in field-goal shooting at 49.1 percent, shot 30.6 percent from the field, including 0 of 3 from 3-point range.Oklahoma City led briefly by one point on two occasions in the second quarter before a 13-3 run by the Hornets gave them a 36-26 lead.Anderson finished with 14 points for the Hornets. Martin scored 17 for Oklahoma City while Russell Westbrook added 14.NOTES:The Thunder's first-quarter (17) and first-half (36) point totals were season lows. ... The Hornets' only lead over the Thunder in the first two meetings of the season came in the second game, when they were up 2-0. New Orleans coach Monty Williams said before the game he's still not sure how long Eric Gordon, who has a sore left knee, will be out of the lineup.

The making of a superstar: Kris Bryant believes in Cubs — not goats or curses

The making of a superstar: Kris Bryant believes in Cubs — not goats or curses

CLEVELAND — Here’s Kris Bryant’s classic World Series media-day reaction to a question about the commercial he filmed with a goat: Which one?

That pretty much sums up a Cubs team that is young, fun and dismissive of the fixation on curses, black cats and Bartman, completely focused on writing a new history for a franchise now trying to win it all for the first time in 108 years.

In his own way, Bryant is becoming a leader of the unit that will take on the Cleveland Indians in Tuesday night’s Game 1 at Progressive Field. He has absurd talent, self-discipline, a gym-rat mentality and the potential to become a rare crossover star for Major League Baseball.

“This whole goat thing, it’s like: So what, who cares?” Bryant said Monday near the end of a nonstop media session. “I’m petting goats. I just think it’s embracing whatever curses there are. No one believes in that. I don’t believe in superstition. I try to change up my underwear when I have a good game, so that there is no superstition. I don’t believe in (any of) that.”

Bryant’s marketing portfolio includes Red Bull, which filmed that “Down on The Farm” spot last April in New Orleans, where Triple-A Iowa’s game had been rained out, two days before he found out he would be getting called up to The Show.

Adidas at that point had already put up the “Worth The Wait” billboard in Wrigleyville, the Cubs playing service-time games to push back Bryant’s free agency until after the 2021 season. Express now has Bryant — and a dog — up on another billboard near the Addison Red Line stop.

This is the usually the point in the story where we point out a Cubs prospect not living up to the hype and falling into the trap of Chicago’s many off-the-field distractions. Except Bryant doesn’t drink. He proposed to his high school sweetheart and prefers to order food in and watch Netflix at home.

“He’s measured,” super-agent Scott Boras said. “He just knows how to handle the emotional part. And he also leads a very simple life. The endorsement side of his life is so grand because of the character of who he is. Corporate people today are highly attracted to him.”

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

Bryant became a status symbol for the organization from the moment Theo Epstein’s scouting department chose him out of the University of San Diego with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft. Bryant still got the highest signing bonus from that class, waiting until the middle of July to finalize a $6.7 million deal.

“We were all wondering what kind of talent he had,” said pitcher Rob Zastryzny, a second-round pick that year who also wound up at Class-A Boise that summer. “And then he went 0-for-5 with five strikeouts (in his first game). We were all like: ‘Man, this is Kris Bryant?’

“I remember the guys who were striking him out. They would strike him out and they’d look at him like: ‘Oh, you’re a second-overall pick?’

“The next day, he came up there and put on an absolute show in BP. (And then he went 2-for-4 with a double) in the game. We were all sitting there like: ‘Oh, OK, this guy doesn’t belong here at all.’ Sure enough, he was gone like a week (or two) later.”

Bryant’s father, Mike, learned the art of hitting from Ted Williams as a Boston Red Sox minor-leaguer and built a batting cage at their Las Vegas home. With a unique ability to stay calm, break down his own swing and make adjustments, Bryant embraced being the target before manager Joe Maddon made it this team’s philosophy.

“The first 24 hours we all knew Kris, we saw an 0-for-5 kind of guy,” Zastryzny said. “Real nice, didn’t act any different than (everybody else). The next day, the same guy showed up to the yard (and) was the best player on the team by far.

“The way I tell it to people is it took him five at-bats to get back into the swing of things. That’s it. I don’t know how he trained or whatever between the draft and when he got to Boise. But it took him five at-bats in pro ball to be: ‘All right, I got this level figured out.’

“There was about 24 hours of doubt in Cubs fans’ minds. And then it was all gone from there on out. That was it.”

Bryant needed only 68 games to prove himself at Double-A Tennessee before getting promoted to Iowa and becoming the consensus minor league player of the year in 2014. He entered the 2015 season as Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect and ended it as the National League’s Rookie of the Year.

This year looks like an MVP season: 39 homers, 102 RBIs, .939 OPS and 121 runs scored for a 103-win team. Plus the athleticism and unselfishness that allowed him to play an All-Star third base, move all over the outfield, sub in at first base and even play one inning at shortstop.

“We talk about his offensive accolades,” Boras said. “But you got to remember this team is what this team is because he is somebody that can fish in all ponds.

“He just provides them with such situational flexibility that it allows the intellect that this franchise has to be optimized. Most franchises have a lot of ideas, but they can’t execute them on the field, because they don’t have the skill set. That just makes every asset of the organization cohesive and allows them to win so many more games.”

Four wins in the World Series and Bryant will become a Chicago legend before his 25th birthday — and never again have to listen to questions about goats and curses and 1908.

Bears In-Foe: Vikings defense is Purple People Eaters, Part II

Bears In-Foe: Vikings defense is Purple People Eaters, Part II

It's bad enough that Jay Cutler will be rusty and he may not have Kyle Long and Josh Sitton protecting him. But even if all the Bears' offensive hands were on deck, Monday night's challenge would've been formidable anyway.

The Vikings' defense leads the league in fewest yards allowed (279.5 per game), is tied for the league-lead in allowing fewest points (14.0), third in rushing defense (81.7), fourth in pass defense (197.8), and sixth in third-down defense (34.2 percent). And oh yeah, they lead the league in turnover ratio (plus-11), courtesy of their nine interceptions (tied for second), seven fumble recoveries and 19 sacks (seventh-most in the NFL).

It's nice to have quality and depth up front. That's where that push comes from, especially off the edges, with ends Brian Robison, Everson Griffen and sophomore Danielle Hunter supplying four sacks apiece. That trio combined for 21.5 sacks a year ago (when the Bears totaled 35 as a team). And while injury-prone Sharrif Floyd finds himself sidelined again since the opener, tackle Linval Joseph (three sacks) is back playing at the All-Pro level he was at a year ago before an ankle injury slowed him. And Tom Johnson contributed 6.5 sacks a year ago rotating in with Floyd at three-technique.

[RELATED: Bears In-Foe: Purple a fitting color for Vikings' battered, bruised offense]

Reunited UCLA linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are in their second year together in a run the Bears will likely have to deal with for another decade. This is the 11th and final year they'll see Chad Greenway, who's more leader than playmaker now in the middle of that defense.

Ryan Pace, Vic Fangio and position coach Ed Donatell must also be jealous of the Vikings' deep defensive backfield. Top cover man Xavier Rhodes, last year's top pick Trae Waynes and Andrew Sendejo have two picks each. Waynes still hasn't taken a job away from ageless 37-year-old Terence Newman. The Vikes were trying to upgrade on Sendejo, who answered the challenge and should be able to play Monday after departing the Eagles game with an ankle injury he suffered almost taking an interception to the house. It's almost unfair that second-round rookie Mackensie Alexander can't even surpass fourth cornerback Captain Munnerlyn for playing time.

But we must not forget Harrison Smith. The humble Golden Domer, humorously nicknamed "Gangsta White Boy" by Adrian Peterson, became the NFL's richest safety by inking a five-year, $51 million deal this summer, is coming off a first Pro Bowl that probably would've come sooner if not for a couple injuries. Two of his four career pick-sixes have come against the Bears, and Pro Football Focus has him as the only safety to grade positively in coverage, run support, and pass rush over each of the last two seasons.

Special teams

Just as Robbie Gould fell under the microscope of the current Bears brass with last season's rough finish, the strong-legged Blair Walsh probably feels a few more eyes on him after missing the 27-yard game-winning attempt in the frigid playoff loss to Seattle. He's 10-of-13 on field goals this season, 11-of-13 on extra points.

But while the Vikings' kickoff coverage was burned by Josh Huff's return Sunday in Philadelphia, the Bears coverage units have to be disciplined and smart against Cordarrelle Patterson and Marcus Sherels. Both have burned the Bears more than once before. With more than his seven kick returns, Patterson's 29.9 average would lead the league. Sherels' 14.6-yard return average on punts ranks third in the NFL. He's already returned two for touchdowns this season after burning the Bears at Soldier Field a year to the day short of Monday's contest.