From Comcast SportsNetFOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -- The New England Patriots silenced their "End Zone Militia" on Sunday night, taking the muskets away from the Revolutionary War re-enactors who fire into the air to celebrate every score.The memory of the Connecticut school shooting was still too fresh for the sight of firearms and the smell of gunpowder."It just doesn't show the right respect for those that lost their lives," said Bob Elliott, the group's sergeant. "But we're still here cheering (the Patriots) on."Two days after 20 children and six adults were shot to death at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., NFL fans gathering in stadiums across the country honored the victims' memory with periods of silence and reflection. Some teams darkened their scoreboards and lowered their flags to half-staff, while others wore helmet decals or black ribbons.After learning he was the favorite player of one 6-year-old victim, New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz wrote "R.I.P. Jack Pinto," "Jack Pinto, my hero" and "This one is for you" on his shoes for the game against the Falcons in Atlanta. Cruz said he called the boy's family after hearing he was a Giants fan and was told they planned to bury him in one of Cruz's No. 80 jerseys."I don't even know how to put it into words," Cruz said. "There are no words that can describe the type of feeling that you get when a kid idolizes you so much that unfortunately they want to put him in the casket with your jersey on. I can't even explain it."The Patriots, the closest team to Newtown that played at home on Sunday, wore a helmet sticker with the city seal and a black ribbon on it; the cheerleaders and mascot wore black armbands, and owner Bob Kraft pledged 25,000 to the community, where he also owns a box-making factory. Before the game, the public address announcer asked for silence while 26 flares were sent into the air.But each time the Patriots scored in the 41-31 loss to San Francisco, the soldiers in the End Zone Militia clapped their empty hands like the rest of the crowd. Elliott said the Patriots asked the group, which has been standing sentry at home games since the mid-1990s, to skip the ceremonial fire."Out of respect for those that were killed, we were asked yesterday not to fire the muskets, which we all agreed with," said Elliott, who is a manufacturing manager for a dental implant-maker. "It was just such a horrific thing. It's hard to put it into words."The Sunday Night Football broadcast on NBC was moved to CNBC and the NBC Sports Network while President Barack Obama addressed the nation. The game returned to its regular channel after the president's remarks from Newtown.The Giants, another popular team in southwestern Connecticut, affixed a decal with the school's initials -- "SHES" -- on their helmets."Being close to home, the players were greatly upset about it," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "Many of the players have young children so they can empathize with the parents who had young children killed."Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt wrote "Newtown, CT" on one of the gloves he wore in warmups and on both of his shoes for the game."We're playing football, and there's something much bigger going on in this world," Watt said. "I just wanted them to know, and I wanted everyone to know, that our thoughts are with them. Nothing is bigger than that. We played our game today, but honestly our thoughts are with them, the families, the teachers, the friends, the first responders, who had to go see that. My dad is a first responder. They were just kids."In St. Louis, the players who wear No. 26 -- Rams running back Daryl Richardson and Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield -- joined hands in a circle with their coaches at midfield before their game, surrounded by dozens of children wearing jerseys."I have a son that's in kindergarten. It choked me up because I would hate to be one of those parents," Rams running back Steven Jackson said. "You drop your kid off at school and he or she wants to go there and learn and better themselves, and to then go to the school and find that your child will no longer be with you. I couldn't imagine that thing."Flags were also at half-staff in Baltimore, where the scoreboards went black as the public address announcer asked the crowd at the game between the Ravens and Denver Broncos to observe "silent reflection" in the wake of Friday's "horrific tragedy.""As a parent you drop your kids off at school many times," said Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, whose 21-year-old son Michael fell into a Wisconsin river and drowned in January. "It's hard to put into words what that community and those families must feel like. We obviously kept them in our prayers."A moment of silence was observed at all 14 NFL games on Sunday; in Houston and in Arlington, Texas, the scoreboard went black. Members of the Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks stood quietly with their heads down on their sideline while fans stood silently at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.The Bills did continue their pregame habit of playing U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday," which they've played before every home game this season. The song is in reference to British troops shooting and killing unarmed protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland in January 1972.In Chicago, Green Bay wide receiver Donald Driver retweeted the names of the victims. St. Louis defensive end Chris Long said after the 36-22 loss the Vikings that it was hard to feel sorry for himself."As we sit here and feel sorry for ourselves after losing a football game, it really helps put things in perspective," he said. "I was watching TV last night and saw a victim's parent and I was really moved by that, the strength that they were showing up there. If we can all show that strength, we'll be all right as a team and as people."
With an extremely difficult six-game road trip right around the corner, it's safe to say we'll have a pretty good idea about the Bulls' playoff hopes by mid February, which just happens to be right before the league's trade deadline on Feb. 23.
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg says he talks about big picture issues with his players "all the time" but acknowledges the perspective from the coaching staff has to be on preparing for the next game. Still, with Atlanta playing its best basketball of the season and the Wizards also enjoying a New Year's resurgence, we're probably looking at six teams (Bulls, Hornets, Pacers, Bucks, Pistons and Knicks) battling it out for the final three playoff spots in the East.
Yes, the Bulls did go 4-2 on their last extended road trip, but they were playing much more efficiently early in the season. Now, a trip that includes games against the Thunder, Rockets, Kings, Warriors, Suns and Timberwolves looks much more daunting. Even the teams with losing records will be tough to beat, considering Sacramento will be looking for payback after last Saturday's controversial loss at the United Center, the Suns are playing very well right now led by high-scoring guards Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker and Minnesota is also starting to find its way under Tom Thibodeau.
When the Bulls hit the All-Star break on Feb. 17, front-office executives John Paxson and Gar Forman should have a clear indication of which direction to pursue. Will they be looking to add another veteran scorer off the bench for a playoff run or start trading off pieces for draft picks? I'm guessing it's more likely the latter.
Right now, Taj Gibson and Niko Mirotic look to be the most tradeable commodities. Gibson will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and it seems unlikely the Bulls will be of the mind to offer a big money, long term contract to a role-playing power forward who turns 32 in June.
With the experience of losing Pau Gasol for nothing last year still fresh in their minds, look for the Bulls to pursue trades with playoff teams trying to add another piece for the stretch run. The Toronto Raptors immediately come to mind, since they've been interested in Gibson for quite some time and look at power forward as their weakest position in a potential Eastern Conference Finals matchup against Cleveland. Would the Raptors be willing to give up their late first-round pick for a half season of Gibson's services? If they believe they have a legitimate shot at knocking off the Cavs this season, the answer is probably yes, especially considering their star point guard Kyle Lowry can also become a free agent at season's end.
Finding equal value for Mirotic might be a more difficult proposition, especially considering his reputation around the league has taken a hit since he came over before the 2014-15 season hailed as the best prospect in Europe. Mirotic was billed as a classic "stretch 4," but to this point, he's only shooting 34 percent for his career from 3-point range, and only 31 percent this season.
Anyone who's watched Mirotic play over the last couple months can see he's battling his confidence and that he might benefit from a fresh start with a new team. Plus, it looks like the Bulls have a ready-to-go replacement on the roster in second-round draft pick Paul Zipser, coincidentally, another European import. Add in the fact Mirotic will be a restricted free agent at season's end, and you can see why the Bulls might be better off exploring trade options now rather than being faced with the choice of matching a big contract offer this summer.
As for Rajon Rondo, unless he's involved as part of a blockbuster deal, there's little chance any NBA team is going to trade for the money remaining on his $14 million contract for this season. Look for the Bulls to explore buyout talks after the trade deadline.
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Here are a few stories from around the Association that have caught my attention.
All-Star reserve picks
With the announcement of NBA All-Star reserves coming Thursday, here are my picks.
Remember the coaches from each conference will select two guards, three frontcourt players and two wild card choices from any position.
In the East, I would go with Isaiah Thomas and John Wall at guard, Paul George, Kevin Love and Joel Embiid in the frontcourt and Kyle Lowry and Kemba Walker as my wild card picks. I know the East will have a point guard heavy roster, but that's the way the game is trending and Lowry and Walker are more deserving in my opinion than frontcourt players like Paul Millsap and Hassan Whiteside.
In the West, I've got Russell Westbrook and Klay Thompson as my reserve guards, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan and Gordon Hayward in the frontcourt and Marc Gasol and Damian Lillard as my wild card picks. Apologies to other worthy choices in the West like Draymond Green, C.J. McCollum, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, but in case you haven't noticed, Jordan is having the best season of his career (averaging 13 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks a game while shooting 69 percent from the field) and he's kept the Clippers afloat with the injuries to both Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.
Boston's Thomas deserved to start All-Star Game
Back to the East, Thomas really should have been voted a starter. All he's done this season is average 29 points and six assists a game, carrying Boston to the third best record in the conference. But more impressively, the 5-foot-9 dynamo leads all NBA players in fourth-quarter scoring, averaging just over 10 points during winning time.
And, one thing we know for sure, the last player selected in the 2011 draft isn't lacking for confidence. Check out these tweets from the unlikely Celtics' star:
Having confidence in yourself is crucial. If u dont have a strong opinion about yourself the people & the world around u will tell u who u r— Isaiah Thomas (@Isaiah_Thomas) January 23, 2017
Without that confidence you might believe them. Not everyone will understand, they might even call me cocky.— Isaiah Thomas (@Isaiah_Thomas) January 23, 2017
But not everyone has had to deal with the amount of doubt I have had to face in my career.— Isaiah Thomas (@Isaiah_Thomas) January 23, 2017
I worked too hard for me to ever say somebody is better than me at something I worked my whole life for! Confident NOT Cocky 💯— Isaiah Thomas (@Isaiah_Thomas) January 23, 2017
For years now, we've been hearing about Celtics general manager Danny Ainge looking to package some of his haul of future draft picks for a veteran star (like the Bulls' Jimmy Butler). Turns out his under-the-radar deal for Thomas back in February 2015 brought the C's a big-time scorer in one of the league's smallest players.
Stats of the week
Speaking of Butler, our stats "cruncher" Chris Kamka highlights some of the accomplishments that earned Jimmy Buckets the first All-Star start of his career.
— Butler has four games with 40 or more points this season, the most by a Bulls player in a season since Michael Jordan's 12 in 1997-98.
— He is the first Bulls player with three 40-point games over a six-game span since Jordan in January 1998.
— Butler put up 52 points, 12 rebounds and six assists on Jan. 2 vs. Hornets, the first time in United Center history a player had a game with at least 50 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.
— He has two career 50-plus-point games, joining Jordan (38) as the only Bulls players with more than one (including playoffs).
— Butler had a streak of 15 straight games with 20 or more points this season, the longest such streak by a Bulls player since Jordan's last 23 games with Bulls (including playoffs).
— His 9.7 free-throw attempts per game this season are the most by a Bulls player since Jordan's 9.8 per game in 1988-89.
— Butler has attempted 10 or more free throws in 24 of his 43 games this season. He attempted 20 or more free throws twice.
Butler has improved his points per game in every year of his career:
— 2011-12: 2.6 PPG
— 2012-13: 8.6 PPG
— 2013-14: 13.1 PPG
— 2014-15: 20.0 PPG
— 2015-16: 20.9 PPG
— 2016-17: 24.8 PPG
Most 40-point game in Bulls history, including playoffs:
— Michael Jordan: 203
— Bob Love: 13
— Jimmy Butler: 7
— Ben Gordon: 5
— Scottie Pippen: 5
— Reggie Theus: 5
Quote of the week
And finally, with so many trade rumors circulating around the league these days, it was refreshing to hear Pistons coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy give beat reporters some candid comments about what actually goes on between front office execs, courtesy of the Detroit News.
"These discussions happen all the time, and I love it when teams say somebody is off limits. I won't lie to my guys. There's no one in this league who is off limits," Van Gundy said. "Who's the most off-limits guy? LeBron? What if the Warriors offered Kevin Durant and Steph Curry? They wouldn't consider that? There's no deal they wouldn't consider?
"Everybody's available. I got asked a question the other day: There's a report out there that Reggie (Jackson)'s available for the right price. Everyone in the league is available for the right price. It's just for your main guys, the right price is a lot steeper and usually doesn't come around."
Interesting stuff from the always-quotable Van Gundy. But I don't think we'll have to worry about that James-for-Durant-and-Curry suggestion getting a lot of play before the deadline.
Michigan football is going to Italy. The Wolverines will spend a week of spring football practice in Rome come April, the latest in Jim Harbaugh's globetrotting efforts to expand the Michigan football brand to every corner of the Earth.
According to the school, which announce the Rome trip Monday, Michigan players will spend a week practicing as well as immersing themselves in the Italian culture, visiting historic sites and visiting orphanages and with U.S. service members.
"We were looking to provide our student-athletes with a great educational, cultural and international football experience," Harbaugh said in the announcement. "I am excited that our student-athletes will be able to take advantage of this amazing educational opportunity, be exposed to another culture and be ambassadors for the United States and the University of Michigan during our visit to Rome."
On the surface, this looks like yet another wild stunt in line with Harbaugh's satellite camp tour an offseason ago, where he seemed to hold camps in every state and wear a jersey of every NFL team.
But really this isn't much different than what college basketball programs do all the time. Programs from large conferences routinely take overseas trips to play against pro teams in foreign countries. Michigan State recently took a trip to Italy. Northwestern recently visited Spain. Illinois recently took an offseason trip to Europe.
Of course transporting a college football team across the ocean is a bit more logistically involved than a basketball team, given the roster differences, but this is something plenty of college athletic programs do on a regular basis. And it is an awesome opportunity for these student-athletes, the kind of experiences universities should be providing.
"Over the past few decades student-athletes in other sports have had the opportunity to participate in international training trips to practice and prepare for the upcoming season," Michigan athletics director Warde Manuel said in the announcement. "This is a tremendous opportunity for these young men to learn about and experience another culture, connect with the people of Italy and showcase American football internationally. The University of Michigan has always encouraged our students to gain knowledge through international experiences, and we are so glad to provide them with this opportunity."
Still, because it's Harbaugh, it's sure to draw a ton of attention. And surely that can't be viewed as a bad thing for Harbaugh and his program.