Kyrie Irving Explains Why He Called, Apologized To LeBron James

BOSTON — Kyrie Irving has seen and accomplished quite a bit in his seven-plus years in the NBA, but the star point guard will be the first one to tell you he’s still learning.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Irving as the Boston Celtics’ leader. It certainly got pretty bumpy last Saturday after an ugly loss to the Orlando Magic, which prompted a tongue lashing from Irving directed at the Celtics’ young players. Irving since has expressed regret for his strong public remarks, and thanks to a follow-up phone call with an old friend, it became all the more clear why his criticisms should’ve been handled differently.
Following the Celtics’ win over the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday at TD Garden, Irving revealed he had a phone conversation with LeBron James after the loss to the Magic. Considering the history the two have, Irving felt there was no one better to call for advice on this particular issue than the Los Angeles Laker star.
“I’ll tell you one thing, and obviously this is something that was a big deal for me because I had to call ‘Bron and tell him I apologize for being that young player that wanted everything at his fingertips,” Irving said. “I wanted everything to be at my threshold. I wanted to be the guy that led us to a championship. I wanted to be the leader and I wanted to be all that. The responsibilities of being the best player in the world and leading a team is something that’s not meant for many people. And ‘Bron was one of those guys that came to Cleveland and really tried to show us what it’s like to win a championship. It was hard for him. Sometimes getting the most out of the group, it’s not the easiest thing in the world. Like I said, only a few are meant for it or chosen for it. I feel like the best person to call was him because he’s been in that situation.
“He’s been there with me where I’ve been the young guy, being the 22-year-old kid who wanted everything. Wanted everything right now. You know, coming off an All-Star year starting and then this technical presence comes back and now I have to adjust my game to this guy. You take it personal, but at the end of the day he just wants what’s best. He has a legacy he wants to leave and he has a window he wants to capture. So what I think that brought me back to was like ‘Alright, how do I get the best out of this group off the success they had last year and then helping them win a championship?’”
Calling James probably wasn’t the easiest thing to do for Irving, who didn’t have the most gracious of exits from the Cleveland Cavaliers two summers ago. Because not only was Irving seeking advice, he was owning up to past faults.
“Having that moment to be able to call a guy like that where we’ve been through so much and we won a championship together,” Irving said. “We’re one of 31, 32 teams to ever do something like that. And it took a lot to think that our road could have been easier. Now I’m in this position, I asked for this and I want this. I want the responsibility and I take it on full force. But it’s also good to reach out for help and really take responsibility for what you’ve done in your career. It takes a real man to go back and call somebody and be like, ‘Hey man, I was young. I made some mistakes. I wasn’t seeing the big picture like you were, I didn’t have the end of the season in mind. I just wanted to get my stats and make All-Star games.’ In his career, it means like this much at that point. So it was good, and it gave me a peace of mind to go about what I gotta go do and obviously I’m gonna be competing against him and everybody else in the league, but it was good.”
While his remarks are telling enough, Irving made a point to note that he and James are on good terms. But when the Lakers visit TD Garden on Feb. 7, it’s going to be business as usual.
“Obviously when they come here I’m gonna try to kick his ass. He knows that.”

Celtics Notes: Brad Stevens Highlights ‘Best Part’ Of Win Over Raptors

BOSTON — The Boston Celtics prided themselves on being relentless throughout the 2017-18 campaign, but the will to win hasn’t always been there this season.
It hasn’t been uncommon to see Boston somewhat collapse in the face of adversity, which has caused for a handful of frustrating losses. But when things weren’t going the Celtics’ way Wednesday night, they powered through and flipped the script.
The C’s turned in arguably their most important performance of the season thus far in their 117-108 win over the Toronto Raptors at TD Garden. Despite Toronto jumping out to an early 11-point lead and rallying late in the fourth quarter, Boston persevered in order to snap its losing streak at three.
So while this heavyweight bout saw Kyrie Irving log a career-high 18 assists in a huge victory over one of the best teams in the NBA, head coach Brad Stevens believes his team’s response to less-than-ideal circumstances was the biggest takeaway.
“Yeah, I mean, I think that’s the biggest thing. I think the best part of tonight, as I said, was we responded to adverse stretches in a game twice,” Stevens said. “Start of the game down 20-8 and then when they came back and took the lead. Went up by four; we responded. And that has not been done enough at enough of a level for us to be what we want to be. And so, I guess we can talk about consistency after a few months of doing it.”
Consistently and resilience both are critical attributes that the Celtics must continue to build on. No matter how well they are playing once the postseason rolls around, it’s inevitable that the going will get tough come April and May. But if the C’s are able to answer the bell like they did against the Raptors, this deep, talented group should be able to handle anything thrown their way.
Here are some other notes from Wednesday’s Celtics-Raptors game:
— Aron Baynes returned to game action after suffering a fractured hand Dec. 19. The veteran big man logged nine points and five rebounds over 14 minutes, including a clutch game-tying 3-pointer with 6:44 left in the fourth.
— Al Horford collected a season-high 24 points, 19 of which came in the second half.
— Irving’s previous career-high in assists entering Wednesday was 14. He became just the second Celtics player in the last 22 seasons to record 18 or more assists in a game.
— Jayson Tatum joined Irving as the two Celtics to finish with a double-double, as the second-year forward posted 16 points and 10 rebounds.
— The Celtics shot 50 percent from the field, including a 46 percent clip from 3-point range.

NFL Odds: Patriots Underdogs Vs. Chiefs In AFC Championship Game

The New England Patriots will be searching for their first victory in Kansas City since 2004 when they hit the gridiron against the Chiefs on Sunday in this season’s AFC Championship Game as 3-point underdogs on the NFL odds at sportsbooks monitored by
New England is coming off a decisive 41-28 win over the Los Angeles Chargers in last weekend’s Divisional Playoff action as it heads into Sunday afternoon’s Patriots vs. Chiefs betting matchup at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Patriots silenced the naysayers with a dominant performance in their win over Los Angeles as 4-point favorites. With the victory, New England extended its current straight-up win streak on home turf to 16 games. However, the Patriots have struggled on the road at times this season, claiming victory in just three of eight outings while losing outright in three of their past four, all as betting favorites.
The Patriots, third at +333 on the updated Super Bowl odds, also have produced mixed results in recent clashes with the Chiefs, alternating between outright wins and losses over their past four, capped by a 43-40 win as 3.5-point favorites back in October. However, the team has come up short in its past two visits to Kansas City, averaging just 15 points per game during that stretch.
Conversely, the Chiefs regularly have run up the score when facing New England, scoring 40 or more points in three of their past four meetings including a 41-14 rout of the Patriots in their last visit to Arrowhead Stadium in September 2014.
Kansas City’s offensive exploits have been far from limited to dates with the Patriots. The Chiefs fueled their rise to the top of the AFC standings with a league-leading offense that averaged 35.3 points per game during the regular season. With last weekend’s crushing 31-13 win over the Indianapolis Colts, the Chiefs now have posted wins by double-digit margins in six of nine home dates this season.
But while the stage is set for the Chiefs to make a bid for their first Super Bowl berth since 1970, the big story in Sunday’s contest may be the weather. With temperatures forecast to dip into the single digits Sunday evening, it remains to be seen how these two offenses will respond.
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes racked up 278 passing yards in snowy conditions, but failed to find the end zone in last weekend’s win over the Colts, while Tom Brady has led the Patriots to victory in three of four playoff contests with the temperature at or below 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Brett Favre Explains Why Eagles Quarterback Nick Foles Is ‘Brady-Esque’

There’s no denying the greatness of Tom Brady and what he’s done over his lengthy career with the New England Patriots. It’s almost unmatched.
And even though he didn’t look as sharp this campaign as he had in years prior, the 41-year-old quarterback and his New England Patriots have the chance to reach yet another Super Bowl on Sunday.
New England travels to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in the AFC Championship Game. A win would mark the ninth Super Bowl appearance for Brady and a third straight trip to the NFL’s biggest game.
But Brett Favre sees some of Brady in a Philadelphia Eagles quarterback not named Carson Wentz. The Pro Football Hall of Famer appeared on SiriusXM NFL Radio on Tuesday to explain why the Eagles made a tough decision in naming Wentz, not Nick Foles, the team’s starting QB for 2019.
“No disrespect at all to Carson Wentz, I think he’s already proven that he’s a great quarterback. Totally different than Nick Foles,” Favre told host Bruce Murray, as transcribed by Yahoo!. “Nick Foles to me is more of a Brady-esque-type quarterback — very limited in what he can do, but very, very good in what he does. Pure pocket passer. He’s great at dishing it out, and he’s proven that he’s clutch. And he did it this past week, he did it last year, he’s done it time and time again. And he’s proven that he can win the big games.
“So, that, I think, is what we have to look at for the Eagles or anyone in a similar situation — it’s about winning, it’s about being clutch, doing, really, what you expect your players to do. And he does it as well as anyone. Now, can he run the read-option? Absolutely not,” Favre added. “So I wouldn’t say that you go with Carson just yet, no disrespect, again, to him. But I think the old saying, dance with the one who brung ya — they’re both young, and can you keep going with both of them? I don’t think so, so you have to make a decision, but I think it’s a difficult decision.”
That’s some pretty high praise from an NFL great.
Foles led Philadelphia to a Super Bowl LII victory over the Patriots in 2018 and took over again this season as the starter after Wentz went down with a back injury. The Eagles ultimately lost to the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Divisional Round with Foles as the signal-caller.
While there’s no telling what kind of future Foles has with the Eagles, we know he has a fan in Favre.

Bruins Notes: David Pastrnak Sets Franchise Record With Goal Vs. Flyers

David Pastrnak no longer is a budding star, rather a full-fledged one. And during Wednesday’s game, he etched his name into the Boston Bruins record books.
The 22-year-old winger tallied the first goal of the game in the Bruins’ 4-3 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center. And in scoring that goal, the 121st of his career, Pastrnak set the franchise record for most goals prior to their 23rd birthday, passing Barry Pederson.

David Pastrnak has now recorded the most goals by a @nhlbruins player prior to his 23rd birthday. #NHLStats #BOSvsPHI
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) January 17, 2019

Certainly some elite company.
One has to think that Pastrnak will make it even tougher for the next set of youngsters to pass him, as well. He won’t turn 23 until May of this year, meaning he has the rest of the regular season to continue to build that separation between him and Pederson.
And considering the Bruins have Pastrank signed through the 2022-23 season, suffice to say he has plenty more time to firmly secure his place in the franchise’s folklore.
Here are some other notes from Wednesday’s Bruins-Flyers game:
— Peter Cehlarik was recalled from the AHL on Tuesday, and he made head coach Bruce Cassidy’s move to slot him into the lineup pay off.
The 23-year-old was the latest winger to slide into the second-line’s revolving door alongside David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk. Cassidy made the move to scratch David Backes, and Cehlarik responded by scoring two goals in the loss to the Flyers.
His first tally came in the first period. DeBrusk sent a pass from face-off dot to face-off dot, and Cehlarik ripped a one-timer past Flyers netminder Carter Hart. Then with the net empty, just over a minute to play in the third period and the Bruins trailing 4-2, Cehlarik pulled his team back within one. Brad Marchand threw a puck toward the net from the far edge of the right face-off circle, and Cehlarik redirected it right on the doorstep.
Whether Cehlarik proves to be a stable, long-term option on the second line remains to be seen, but Wednesday’s performance should be an encouraging sign for Cassidy.
— Ryan Donato was on the receiving end of a nasty hit from Jori Lehtera.
During the second period, Donato began to enter a scrum along the boards to assist teammate Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson. He seemed to see Lehtera coming behind him, but Lehtera proceed to egregiously board Donato, sending his face into the glass and bloodying him up.
Lehtera was whacked with a five-minute major and game misconduct, while Donato went down the tunnel to get fixed back up. Donato was back in the game during the third period.

Tom Brady Downplays Patriots Being Pegged As Underdogs Vs. Chiefs

The New England Patriots travel to Arrowhead Stadium to take on the Kansas City Chiefs with a trip to Super Bowl LIII on the line as rare underdogs.
Quarterback Tom Brady certainly has made it known he hears what the haters say about him and his team, and Wednesday he took another shot at those who doubt New England during his press conference Wednesday when he said it just “goes to show” what people think of its chances against the Chiefs.
To hear Brady talk about being the underdog, check out the “NESN Sports Today” video above, presented by People’s United Bank.

Celtics Wrap: Boston Snaps Skid With Thrilling Win Over Raptors

BOSTON — The Boston Celtics ended their losing streak in style Wednesday night.
After going 0-for-3 on their latest road trip, the Celtics got back in the win column with an exciting 117-108 victory over the Toronto Raptors at TD Garden.
Kyrie Irving turned yet another set of late-game heroics and paced the Celtics with 27 points and 18 assists, while Al Horford wasn’t far behind with 24. Gordon Hayward (18 points) and Jayson Tatum (16 points) also scored in double figures for Boston.
Kawhi Leonard was his usual self with a game-high 33 points, but it proved to be not enough.
With the win, the Celtics improved to 26-18, while the Raptors fell to 33-13.
Here’s how it all went down:
PG: Kyrie Irving
SG: Marcus Smart
SF: Jayson Tatum
PF: Marcus Morris
C: Al Horford
It was an offensive display in the first quarter, which concluded with the Raptors owning a 36-30 lead. Toronto gave Boston all sorts of early trouble in the early goings, grabbing an 18-7 lead thanks to 12 points in the paint within the first five minutes of the contest. But the C’s stayed the course and prevented the visitors from ballooning their advantage.
Irving paced Boston with eight first-quarter points, while Hayward provided a boost off the bench with seven. Toronto’s core four did the bulk of its damage, as Leonard led the way with nine, just ahead of Serge Ibaka, Danny Green and Kyle Lowry, all of whom provided seven. The two sides combined to shoot 59 percent from the field in the opening 12 minutes.
While the opening frame was very much a back-and-forth affair, the second quarter was all Boston. The Celtics shined on both ends of the floor, as they shot at a 62 percent clip, limited the Raptors to just 17 points and took a 64-53 lead into the break.
Save for Leonard’s seven points, the Raptors offensive effectively was non-existent in the second frame. In fact, Boston forced Toronto into 24-second violations on back-to-back possessions just over three minutes into the quarter. But where the Raptors struggled, the Celtics shined.
Hayward was stellar for a second straight quarter, pacing Boston with nine points. The rest of Boston’s bench combined to score 12 points, including Jaylen Brown’s five.
Third quarters have been problematic for the Celtics throughout the campaign, and that trend continued Wednesday. After growing its lead to as large as 16, Boston allowed Toronto chip away and cut the deficit to as small as two with four minutes left to play in the frame. The C’s didn’t let things get too off the rails, though, as they took an 87-83 lead into the fourth.
It could’ve gotten far uglier for Boston had it not been for Horford. After a quiet five-point showing, the veteran big man erupted for 12 in the third, which served as more than half of the Celtics’ total points in the quarter. Boston collectively shot 35 percent from the field. Ibaka did the heavy lifting for Toronto with 11 points.
Amid a playoff-like atmosphere, the Celtics and Raptors turned in a thrilling final frame.
Leonard gave Toronto its first lead since the second quarter via a fadeaway jumper with just under eight minutes to play. Save for an Aron Baynes’ game-tying 3-pointer just over a minute later, the Raptors maintained a slim advantage for the next three-plus minutes until Tatum converted from range to give the Celtics a 106-104 lead with three minutes to go. After Green knotted the score with a jumper, it was all Celtics.
Irving provided back-to-back clutch baskets, sinking a step-back jumper followed by a 3-pointer. A pair of Horford baskets and a Tatum runner wrapped up the win for the C’s.
Ice. In. His. Veins.

— Boston Celtics (@celtics) January 17, 2019

The Celtics return to action Friday night when they will host the Memphis Grizzlies. Tip-off from TD Garden is set for 7 p.m. ET.

Bruins Wrap: Sean Couturier Records Hat Trick As Boston Falls To Flyers 4-3

The Philadelphia Flyers entered Wednesday night’s game with the fewest points in the NHL, but the Boston Bruins sure had their proverbial hands full with them.
Sean Couturier posted a hat trick as the Bruins fell 4-3 to the Flyers at Wells Fargo Center. It was the Bruins’ second straight loss after an overtime defeat at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens on Monday, and the third in their last four games.
Peter Cehlarik (twice) and David Pastrnak had the goals for Boston, while Oskar Lindblom accounted for the Flyers’ non-Couturier tally.
Jaroslav Halak turned away 15 shots for the Bruins, while Philly netminder Carter Hart made 39 saves.
The Bruins fell to 26-16-5 with the loss, while the Flyers climbed to 18-23-6 with the win.
Here’s how it all went down:
The Bruins got on the board early and added to the advantage to go into the break up 2-1.
With Jori Lehtera in the penalty box at 4:14 for tripping Brandon Carlo, it didn’t take the Bruins long to convert. Torey Krug skated down the wing and threw a beautiful no-look pass cross-ice to Pastrnak at the bottom of the left face-off circle. Pastrnak one-timed the puck, which deflected off Hart and into the net at 4:39 for an early tally.

Torey Krug sets up David Pastrnak for the one-timer with a perfect cross-ice pass.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) January 17, 2019

The Bruins doubled their advantage later in the period, thanks again to a deft pass.
As Jake DeBrusk skated along the left wing and to the bottom of the face-off circle, he pivoted and slid a puck across the slot to Cehlarik in the opposite face-off circle. Cehlarik — who was recalled from the AHL on Tuesday — finished the one-timer at 9:12.

Welcome back, Peter.#NHLBruins
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) January 17, 2019

It was Cehlarik’s first goal of the season and second of his career.
The Flyers wouldn’t go into the break scoreless, however.
Claude Giroux gathered a loose puck right at the blue line, and turned and found Lindblom. After a heavy first touch, Lindblom secured the puck in the left face-off circle and wristed Philly’s first goal past Halak on his short side.

Easy to tell with a pass like this that @28CGiroux's gathered 500 career assists. #WNH
— NHL (@NHL) January 17, 2019

The Bruins saw their lead wiped away, and by the end of the middle 20 minutes they were trailing.
The Flyers found the equalizer less than six minutes into the second period.
Jakub Voracek unleashed a shot from the point, and as it sailed toward the net it just barely redirected off the stick of Couturier, but it was enough to sneak it past Halak at 5:32.

CTS! #BOSvsPHI #LetsGoFlyers
— Philadelphia Flyers (@NHLFlyers) January 17, 2019

Just over a minute later the Flyers took the lead, thanks again to Couturier.
With the Bruins on the penalty kill, Sean Kuraly got a chance at a shot on a 2-on-1, but was denied by Hart. The Flyers got possession and began the transition, with Couturier finding Giroux as they skated into their attacking zone. Giroux then hit Wayne Simmonds with a pass at the right face-off dot, and Simmonds quickly hit Couturier on the doorstep, and the 26-year-old tipped it past Halak.

There's no place like home!
The @NHLFlyers are feeling goooood tonight.
Watch #BOSvsPHI right here:
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) January 17, 2019

The Bruins got an opportunity on the power play late in the frame, with Lehtera receiving a five-minute major and game misconduct for an egregious boarding of Ryan Donato. Boston couldn’t convert by the time the horn sounded, but 1:48 remained on the advantage to begin the final frame.
In the final period it almost felt like the Flyers were begging the Bruins to score. Entering the game, Philadelphia was fourth-worst in the league on the penalty kill, while the B’s were second-best on the man advantage. But despite the Flyers spending 5:48 of the third period in the penalty box, Boston couldn’t find the tying goal to force overtime.
The Bruins had a prime opportunity to level the score to begin the period, but couldn’t make good use of the remaining 1:48 on the Lehtera major. They got another opportunity shortly thereafter when Philly was penalized for too many men on the ice at 3:39, but they couldn’t cash in on that chance, either. Scott Laughton served two minutes when he hooked Pastrnak at 12:00, but Boston couldn’t find a goal in that opportunity.
All those missed opportunities caught up to the Bruins, as Couturier secured his hat trick at 15:53.
As Couturier dashed through the attacking zone and into the left face-off circle, he wristed a shot that went just under Halak’s pad and sent the arena into a frenzy.

Here come the hats!
The FIRST career hat trick for Sean Couturier.
Stream the remainder of this game here:
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) January 17, 2019

The Bruins didn’t totally lie down, however. With 1:06 left in the game and their net empty, Boston pulled back within one.
Brad Marchand threw a puck on net from the far edge of the right face-off circle, and Cehlarik was on the doorstep to redirect it past Hart.
The Bruins emptied their net again but couldn’t tie it up.
The Bruins will return home for a tilt with the St. Louis Blues on Thursday. Puck drop from TD Garden is set for 7 p.m. ET.
This Bruins Wrap is presented by Plainridge Park Casino.

Gordon Hayward Opens Up About Slow Start To Celtics’ Season After Injury

It hasn’t been the start to the Celtics’ season many expected. Boston had sky-high expectations heading into the 2018-19 campaign due to the massive amount of talent it had.
But things don’t always go as planned, just ask Gordon Hayward.
Hayward, as you know, had his 2017-18 season cut short just six minutes into his Celtics debut with a gruesome leg and ankle injury that caused him to miss the entire regular season and postseason, where Boston brought LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
A new season in which Hayward was healthy seemed like a recipe for disaster for the C’s opponents, butt didn’t start off that way. The forward was demoted to the Boston bench as a result.
It seemed as if he found a groove in his new role and even dropped a season-high 35 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves in January. But the trend didn’t continue as he had just six points in a lopsided loss to the Miami Heat on Jan. 10, followed by an inbounds pass to Jayson Tatum in the final seconds of a 105-103 loss to the Orlando Magic that clearly upset Kyrie Irving.
Hayward, though, is trying to find the good in a season he’s struggled.
“There have been some low moments,” Hayward told Bleacher Report. “I think there’s definitely doubt that comes after you have a major injury like that, you kind of want it to go right back to the way it was, but that’s not the reality of the situation. “You know it’s going to be a work in progress. I’m happy that I’m out here on the court so I try to find some joy in that.”
While Haywards numbers this year could be a concern for Celtics’ fans and maybe even Hayward himself, they should take solace in the fact that he is coming back from a major injury, and this is his first full year with a new team.

Sam Kennedy Sheds More Light On Red Sox’s Upcoming White House Visit

The Boston Red Sox announced they would be visiting president Donald Trump and the White House on Feb. 15 to celebrate their 2018 World Series championship. While we don’t know if they’ll be served the same spread as the Clemson Tigers football team, we do have a few more details about the pending trip.
Team president and CEO Sam Kennedy discussed why the trip is earlier than normal, rather than during the season, on WEEI’s “Dale & Keefe” on Wednesday, and also explained the team’s travel plans to Washington D.C.
“This was the date that was preferred by Alex Cora, Dave Dombrowski and the coaching staff,” Kennedy told hosts Dale Arnold and Rich Keefe, as transcribed by WEEI. “We wanted to set it up earlier rather than later. Some years in the past, we went during April or May when we’ve played down in Baltimore. Those always seemed a little bit stale. There was quite some time between the championship and the visit. So we wanted to do it during the winter. We looked at the possibility of doing it after Winter Weekend, which is this weekend, but this is the date everyone will be in Fort Myers. We’re going to do a charter from Fort Myers up to Washington D.C. and back in the same day. It’s actually most convenient to players and their spouses. The Major League staff will also be joining us if all of this comes together.”
And while he didn’t name names of players who wouldn’t be attending, Kennedy seemed confident the Red Sox would be well-represented.
“Just like in the past, I’m sure there will be players who chose not to go, who do go,” he said. “We’ve been pretty consistent and clear about this. This is an honor and a privilege to be invited to the White House. We’ve tried to not make it a political statement. It’s an honor to be invited under the Bush administration two times and the Obama administration once. We feel fortunate. It’s about the players and giving these guys an opportunity to go behind the scenes at the White House and be honored for what was a remarkable 2018 season. You want to rise above politics and give your players the opportunity. But it certainly is not a mandatory trip. But when it all comes together, I believe we’ll have a good representation of players and ownership who choose to go.”
It certainly will be a busy week for the Sox, as pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers on Feb. 13 before the whole squad returns to Florida on Feb. 18 as Boston begins its defense of its championship.