Dec 3, 2020

Axios Sports

👋 Good morning! Two quick nuggets to get your day started:

  • 🏀 NBA: The Wizards and Rockets finally pulled the trigger on John Wall (and a first-round pick) for Russell Westbrook, swapping the otherwise untradeable contracts of these electric but disgruntled point guards.
  • 🏈 HS football: Absolutely wild finish in last night’s Alabama high school state championship, as Thompson scored 10 points in the final minute on a blocked punt and a recovered onside kick to take down Auburn, 29-28.

Let's sports.

Today's word count: 1,848 words (7 minutes).

1 big thing: 🏀 Don't sleep on Steph

Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Steph Curry has never flown more under the radar, having played just five games last season due to injury while his team won an NBA-worst 15 games.

Why it matters: As new stars have emerged in the league and the Lakers supplanted Golden State as best in the West, Curry has put his head down and worked, preparing for the next chapter of his career both on and off the court.

The big picture: It's been nearly 18 months since Curry completed his last full season, which ended in a Finals loss to the Raptors as both Klay Thompson (ACL) and Kevin Durant (Achilles) were lost during the series.

  • Working his way back: Curry missed all but five games last year to a hand injury, but has spent the last nine-plus months relentlessly working his way back with the help of his longtime trainer and a whole lot of Zoom sessions.
  • New teammates: Thompson is out again (Achilles) and Durant is a Net, and they've been replaced by talented but very different players. Curry, 32, will have to shoulder far more of the offensive burden than in recent years.

Between the lines: Amid all this on-court chaos, though, Curry has shined off it.

  • Curry Brand: Like Nike's Jordan Brand, Curry's signature line from Under Armour has officially transformed into its own brand — a huge play from a company whose growth has slowed considerably in recent years.
  • Giving back: A key driver for the brand is a commitment to doing good, specifically by donating a portion of profits towards fair and equal access to sport for young athletes.
  • Getting involved: In late-March, Curry interviewed NIAID director Anthony Fauci on Instagram about the still-nascent pandemic; yesterday, he again took to Instagram to interview former President Obama about his recently published memoir.
"So much of who I am as a person and a leader today is because of playing sports as a kid ... which is why I'm passionate about making sure everyone has access to these opportunities, first through my foundation and now through Curry Brand."

The bottom line: 2020 was chaotic for everyone, but as most look toward the future and hope things will change for the better, Curry took matters into his own hands.

Go deeper: Curry's offseason regimen has him ready for anything (The Athletic)

2. 🏈 NFL power rankings: Week 13
Table: Axios Visuals

The Steelers won one of the uglier games of the season yesterday afternoon, taking down the Ravens, 19-14, in what is hopefully the last Wednesday NFL action for a while.

  • And with that, the NFL "successfully" completed Week 13 and the undefeated Steelers remain atop our rankings.
  • Wild stat: The Ravens' lone passing first down of the game came on their 70-yard touchdown pass from third-string QB Trace McSorley to Marquise Brown with just three minutes left.

Stat leaders:

  • Passing yards: Patrick Mahomes, KC (3,497); Tom Brady, TB (3,300); Russell Wilson, SEA (3,216)
  • Passing TD: Aaron Rodgers, GB (33); Wilson (31); Mahomes (30)
  • Receiving yards: D.K. Metcalf, SEA (1,039); Tyreek Hill, KC (1,021); Travis Kelce, KC (978)
  • Receiving TD: Hill (13); Adam Thielen, MIN (11); Mike Evans, TB (11); Davante Adams, GB (11)
  • Rushing yards: Derrick Henry, TEN (1,257); Dalvin Cook, MIN (1,130); James Robinson, JAX (890)
  • Rushing TD: Cook (13); Henry (12); Antonio Gibson, WSH (11)
  • Interceptions: Xavien Howard, MIA (7); J.C. Jackson, NE (6); five tied with 4
  • Sacks: T.J. Watt, PIT (11); Aaron Donald, LAR (10); Myles Garrett, CLE and Trey Hendrickson, NO (9.5)

Coming up:

  • Tonight: No game
  • Sunday, 1pm ET: Browns at Titans (-5.5)
  • Sunday, 4pm ET: Rams (-3) at Cardinals
  • Sunday night: Broncos at Chiefs (-14)
  • Monday: Washington at Steelers (-8.5); Bills (-2.5) at 49ers
  • Tuesday: Cowboys at Ravens (-7)
  • Bye week: Bucs, Panthers

Go deeper: Full Week 13 schedule

3. 🏀 Last night on the hardwood

Matt Coleman wins the Maui Invitational for Texas at the last second. Photo: Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It was another packed night of college hoops, with 14 ranked men's and women's teams taking the floor across the country in front of no fans.

Men's

Maui Invitational final: In a twist befitting 2020, this was held in ... Asheville, North Carolina.

  • Texas 69, UNC 67: Matt Coleman (22 pts, 3 ast, 1 stl) led the Longhorns from start to finish, but no shot was bigger than his step-back, game-winning jumper with 0.1 seconds left.

Jimmy V Classic: An annual doubleheader since 1995 to honor the late Jim Valvano.

  • Gonzaga 87, West Virginia 82: The Mountaineers are really good, deep and athletic, but the Bulldogs are No. 1 for. a reason. Four players scored at least 17 points and the team recorded nearly as many steals (9) as turnovers (11).
  • Baylor 82, Illinois 69: It was close for a while, but No. 2 Baylor pulled ahead in the final 10 minutes and never looked back, dealing the No. 5 Illini its first loss of the season.

The rest:

Women's
4. ⚽️ Tim Melia, MLS' shootout king

Sporting KC's Tim Melia saves a penalty against San Jose. Photo: Bill Barrett/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Tim Melia, Sporting KC's 34-year-old keeper, is the most successful goalie in MLS history when it comes to stopping penalty kicks.

By the numbers: 2017's MLS keeper of the year, Melia shines even brighter when facing penalties.

  • 53.8%: Just 14 of 26 penalties (53.8%) he's faced have scored — the lowest conversion rate against any keeper in MLS history (minimum 10 shots).
  • 6-0: His teams have never lost a game decided by a shootout, going 6-0 in such instances.

The big picture: The most recent of those six came in Round One of these playoffs (photo above), as Melia saved all three attempts he faced against San Jose in the first-ever MLS shootout shutout.

  • 🎥 Watch the full shootout, paying particular attention to Melia's instincts, which seem to border on precognition.

What they're saying: Melia won't divulge his secrets (which, fair enough — he's in a playoff race!) beyond saying he's "had a little bit of fortune," but other keepers have provided their own insights.

"If you're looking at the shooter's eyes, that's something you should never do. Generally speaking, if you can look from the waist down, the way that the hips will generally face is the way that the ball is going to go."
— Brad Friedel, former USMNT keeper

Coming up: Sporting KC faces Minnesota tonight in the Western Conference semis (8:30pm, FOX).

  • A word of advice for Minnesota: If you want to win, avoid going to penalties.

Go deeper: Melia won't reveal his secrets (ESPN)

5. 🇯🇵 Olympics exploring ways to allow fans

Photo: Ahmet Furkan Mercan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Tokyo Olympic officials have discussed using a health tracking app as a measure that could allow fans from abroad to attend the Games next summer, AP reports.

The big picture: The cost of these Games, already bloated compared to the original estimate from 2013's successful bid, has reportedly increased by ~$2-3 billion due to the one-year delay.

  • Selling tickets would be an obvious way to offset some of those costs, so officials are exploring every avenue to make that possible.

Between the lines: Japanese citizens aren't happy about this development, as they've been among the world leaders in curbing the spread of the virus and fear an influx of foreigners could put that progress in jeopardy.

Worth noting: More Americans died of COVID-19 Wednesday (2,760) than Japan has lost to the virus since the pandemic began (2,141).

6. ⚡️ Catch up quick

Photo: Robert Laberge/Getty Images

  • 💰 LeBron paid: James and the Lakers agreed Wednesday to a two-year, $85 million contract extension through the 2022-23 season, making him a free agent the same year his son, Bronny, graduates high school and (likely) becomes draft-eligible. 👀
  • 🎧 Wingo's new chapter: Trey Wingo, who left ESPN last week after 23 years, launched a podcast and video series Wednesday called "Half-Forgotten History." In each episode, Wingo chats one-on-one with NFL legends like Emmitt Smith, Jim Kelly and Darren Woodson to share the lesser-known stories worth telling. (Episode 1: Kurt Warner)
  • ⚽️ Haaland injured: Borussia Dortmund's star forward, Erling Haaland, will miss the rest of the year with a hamstring injury, the club confirmed Wednesday. The good? They're already through to the Champions League Round of 16. The bad? They've still got four December matches in the Bundesliga.
  • ⛳️ Course record: England's Andy Sullivan shot an 11-under-par 61 during Wednesday's opening round of the Dubai Championship, setting a new course record at the Jumeirah Golf Estates. Full leaderboard.
Sullivan celebrating with his record-setting scorecard. Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
7. 🏀 Field trip: Columbia, South Carolina

Thanks for choosing Axios Airlines. We'll be traveling to a new destination each morning this month. Sit back and enjoy the flight.

Screenshot: Google Maps
  • Location: Colonial Life Arena
  • Coordinates: 33.9948°N, 81.0373°W

Welcome to Columbia, South Carolina, where the top-ranked Gamecocks (3-0) host No. 8 NC State (2-0) in tonight's women's college basketball marquee matchup (7pm, ESPN2).

  • Carolina style: While many BBQ-centric states pride themselves on a distinct style, South Carolina is split in quadrants: mustard in the midlands, vinegar on the coast, heavy tomato up north and light tomato in the west.
  • Fun fact: Columbia is home to Fort Jackson, the U.S. Army's largest Basic Combat Training installation.
From L-R: Aliyah Boston, Brea Beal and Zia Cooke after winning the SEC Tournament in March. Photo: John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Matchup preview: The Gamecocks have advanced to at least the Sweet 16 every year since 2014 — including their first championship in 2017 — and they look like the early favorites to cut down the nets again in 2021.

  • The Wolfpack haven't sustained their excellence quite as long, but after consecutive Sweet 16 runs in 2018 and 2019, they ended last season as the No. 8 team in the country before the tournament was canceled.

Wooden watch: Three of the 30 women on the preseason Wooden award watch list are playing in tonight's game:

  • Aliyah Boston, F (South Carolina, So.)
  • Zia Cooke, G (South Carolina, So.)
  • Elissa Cunane, C (NC State, Jr.)
8. Dec. 3, 1956: 🏀 Wilt's varsity debut

Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

64 years ago today, Wilt Chamberlain made his varsity debut at Kansas in an 87-69 win over Northwestern, setting the single-game school record for both points (52) and rebounds (31) in the process.

  • By the numbers: In two years as a Jayhawk, Wilt averaged 29.9 points and 18.3 rebounds.

Rewind: Conference rules prohibited freshmen from playing varsity ball, which was bad news for the latter as a young Wilt dominated (42 pts, 29 reb) in the annual freshmen-varsity scrimmage, dealing them their first loss since the series began in 1922.

Fast forward: With Wilt finally on the varsity team as a sophomore, Kansas made a run all the way to the national championship, losing to UNC by one point in triple overtime for the Tar Heels' first title.

  • Yes, but: Wilt earned the Tournament's Most Outstanding Player anyway, becoming the fourth (of 11) to win the award despite not winning the title.

What came next: As a junior, teams routinely froze the ball or triple-teamed Wilt to neutralize the otherwise unstoppable force.

  • The strategy worked, as Kansas failed to even make the tournament, but it frustrated him so much he opted to leave a year early, signing with the Harlem Globetrotters while he waited for his NBA eligibility to kick in.

🎥 Watch: College highlights (YouTube)

9. 🏈 NFL trivia

Photo: Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Robert Griffin III started just his second game since New Year's Day 2017 in yesterday's loss to the Steelers, eight years after he was taken No. 2 in the 2012 draft.

  • Question: Andrew Luck of course went first that year, but who went third?
  • Hint: Running back; played his final game in 2014.

Answer at the bottom.

10. ♟ Chess boom

Giphy

Amid the popularity of Netflix's seven-episode limited series, "The Queen's Gambit," chess is experiencing a surge of enthusiasm across the country.

By the numbers:

  • 87% increase: Since the series' Oct. 23 premiere, sales of chess sets in the U.S. have increased 87%. Sales of chess books, meanwhile, have increased 603%.
  • 30,000 users: Chess.com's daily registration of new users has spiked as high as 30,000, compared to 6,000 each day before the show's premiere.

Go deeper: Stream the series (Netflix)

Talk tomorrow,

Jeff "Remember when RGIII won rookie of the year?" Tracy

Trivia answer: Trent Richardson (Browns)