Tom Sorensen

Tom Talks: A so-so week and those (now) unpredictable Panthers

Charlotte Hornets guard Malik Monk had a rough three-game road trip in which he shot 7-of-37 from the field.
Charlotte Hornets guard Malik Monk had a rough three-game road trip in which he shot 7-of-37 from the field. AP

The NFL had a great week. Mine was OK.

Last week: 8-5

Season: 83-49-2

Lock of the Week: Minnesota (-4) over Detroit. Minnesota won by 15, so I won.

Season: 7-2.

The Lock is the lone game I pick against the line. Oddsmakers continually offer gifts, and I continually and graciously accept them. Locks the last few weeks have been blatantly obvious. This week, I have to work for it.

This week’s picks, with the home team in CAPS:

PITTSBURGH 2 over Carolina

KANSAS CITY by as many as it wants over Arizona. OK, 16.

NEW YORK JETS 4 over Buffalo

INDIANAPOLIS 3 over Jacksonville

TAMPA BAY 1 over Washington

New Orleans 6 over CINCINNATI

New England 6 over TENNESSEE

Atlanta 3 over CLEVELAND

Los Angeles Chargers 4 over OAKLAND

GREEN BAY 7 over Miami

LOS ANGELES RAMS 6 over Seattle

PHILADELPHIA 9 over Dallas

SAN FRANCISCO 1 over New York Giants 1

Lock of the Week: CHICAGO (-7) 10 over Detroit

More tricks from Panthers?

Loved what the Carolina Panthers did Sunday to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Carolina’s second-half letdown seemed inevitable. But, man, was that first half something to behold. Defense was outstanding, and when the Panthers had the ball, Tampa Bay had no idea what would happen next.

Loved the trick plays. The Buccaneers were reeling, and Carolina’s play-calling was brilliant. Wouldn’t you love to see the tricks that the Panthers have yet to employ?

My best question ... ?

I don’t know how many questions I’ve asked since I left journalism school. But I know the best question I’ve ever asked. I asked it of a professional athlete in a Marriott in downtown Pittsburgh.

I’ve covered a game in a press box in every NFL market. I’ll always favor New Orleans. There’s something about a woman walking up 90 minutes before kickoff selling shots out of a tube for $1 a pop. Have to work, thanks. Also, I like the voodoo stuff and the music.

But the best experience I’ve found is in Green Bay, Wis. Fans are passionate about their Packers. But if you wear a jersey that bears the colors of their opponent, and fans of the Carolina Panthers do, Green Bay fans do not attempt to maim you.

Second to Green Bay is Pittsburgh, where the Panthers play Thursday. Pittsburgh embraces that team the way N.C. fans embrace the college of their choice. They’ve passed down that love from generation to generation the way some families pass down an heirloom or an inheritance.

I brought my older son with me to a Pittsburgh game, and he insisted on wearing his Carolina colors. He was barely in his teens. In some cities, I would have said no. But he really wanted to show Pittsburgh his team of choice, and it wasn’t as if fans were going to attack him.

I occasionally watched him from the press box through binoculars, and he was easy to find, a white island in an ocean of black and gold. He did not appear maimed, and at halftime, I walked down to check on him.

The Pittsburgh fan next to him, a man about my age who wore a Mean Joe Greene jersey, asked, “Is this your son?”

When I nodded, the man said: “You know, every time the Panthers did something right, he’d stand up and cheer, and every time the Steelers did something stupid, he’d stand up and cheer. Finally I said, ‘Son, you might not want to do that here.’ “

The man laughed.

“He’s good,” the man said. “We’ll take care of him.”

And they did.

I hope some of you made the trip. Traveling with your team is always an experience, and even if the outcome isn’t what you hope, the anticipation, wearing a friendly jersey on unfriendly turf, often is outstanding.

About the best question I ever asked: The Harlem Globetrotters played the Washington Generals, who should not be confused with the Washington Wizards, and stayed in the same Marriott I did. A Globetrotter still in uniform walked past me in the lobby after the game.

“So,” I asked, “how’d you guys do?”

He started to say, “We won,” but only got out “We” and the “w” before he caught himself and merely said “We w…”

He smiled a smile he tried to stifle, and continued to walk.

Malik Monk’s value

When Malik Monk goes into a game, it’s as if we lean forward in our chairs. We know Monk is going to do something. It might not be good. But it might be. And, more and more, it will be.

Monk, who is 20 and in his second season as a Charlotte Hornet, reminds me of an NFL defensive back. You might burn him on a crossing pattern. On the next play, you might burn him on a go route. But watch the defensive back on the next snap, playing press coverage against the receiver who has twice beaten him, confident that the receiver won’t do it a third time. Uncertain defensive backs don’t last on NFL rosters.

Uncertain shooters don’t last on NBA rosters, not if shooting is their primary assignment. Monk might miss consecutive 3-pointers. But his confidence is absolute, and he believes the next one is going in.

As a rookie out of Kentucky last season, and the 11th pick in the first round of the 2017 draft, Monk shot 36% from the field and 34.2% on 3s.

We can blame former coach Steve Clifford if we choose, but Clifford emphasized defense, and Monk didn’t play great defense. Also, he didn’t play good defense.

Under first-year coach James Borrego, however, Monk has evolved the way talented players in their second season often do. He’s still not a superior defender. But he’s better. And going into Friday’s game at Philadelphia, he’d raised his field goal percentage this season to 41.7 and his 3-point percentage to 36.8.

When NBA All-Star Kemba Walker was in his second season, he shot 42.3 percent rom the field and 32.2 percent from 3-point range.

This season, Walker shoots 47.1 percent in the former and 40.4 percent in the latter. Walker improves every facet of his game every season, and to expect Monk to replicate that trajectory is unrealistic. Yet, Monk’s shooting percentage will rise. His shot is too pure and too pretty not to.

Monk might not be on, but he’s worth the risk. Charlotte is 6-5 going into its game in Philadelphia Friday, and despite the Hornets’ improvement this season, they’ll struggle in close games until they find a scorer to complement Walker.

Walker averages 28.1 points. Monk is Charlotte’s second leading scorer at 13.4 points, and guard Jeremy Lamb is third at 12. Add Lamb’s total to Monk’s and they still don’t score as many points as Walker.

Walker is tied for third in the NBA in scoring. Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors leads the league with an average of 31.3 points, Joel Embid of the Philadelphia 76ers is second with 28.4, and Blake Griffin of the Detroit Pistons is tied with Walker for third.

Curry obviously has scoring help – Kevin Durant averages 27.7 points and Klay Thompson 20.5. Embid has J.J. Redick at 17.9 points a game and Ben Simmons at 13.9. Griffin has Andre Drummond at 18.4 and Reggie Jackson at 16.3. LeBron James averages 27.8 points for the Los Angeles Lakers, and he has Brandon Ingram at 15.5 and JaVale McGee at 14.4.

The Hornets are the outliers. On other teams for which the big scorers play, the No. 2 and No. 3 scorers combine to score more than the leader.

Give Walker more help. Monk is the obvious candidate, and although I like to see him on the court, I like to see him with the second team. To come off the bench firing is not a quality every player can or will offer.

Last season – and I’m a fan of Clifford’s work in Charlotte as head coach – the Hornets drew in. If you didn’t play defense, you rarely played. Because Monk’s adjustment to the NBA was slowed by an ankle injury, and because he was deemed a liability when an opponent had the ball, minutes were hard to come by.

This season, the philosophy has altered. So as a game is being decided, you often see Monk on the floor with Walker and even with Walker and point guard Tony Parker. True, no opponent looks up when he sees Walker, Monk and Parker and asks, “Oh, no, how will we ever score?” But when its Charlotte’s turn to try to score, opponents have to scramble. Any combination of those Charlotte guards is fascinating.

Monk is not a point guard who shoots. He’s a shooting guard who passes. At 6-foot-3, he has a point guard’s height and a shooting guard’s game.

The beauty of the NBA is that teams increasingly defy convention. What does Monk do? He exploits defenses, and makes the Hornets more interesting.

NFL celebrations? Don’t overreact

I know some of you can’t stand the New Orleans Saints. I’m biased, because I love New Orleans (the city). But, come on. Didn’t you love the touchdown celebration Sunday by New Orleans’ receiver Michael Thomas?

Thomas caught a 72-yard touchdown in New Orleans Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams. He sped to the end zone, ran to the goal post, lifted the cushion, pulled out a cell phone and pretended to talk. And it was a flip phone.

Of course, the conversation was pretend. You ever been in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome? Even if you’re one of those people who talk to yourself, you couldn’t hear your voice there even if the conversation were internal.

Because Thomas used a prop, the Saints were penalized 15 yards.

They shouldn’t have been. Only certain celebrations should be allowed, and Thomas met the criteria.

Were the Saints winning? If you celebrate an individual play when your employers are losing, your team ought to be penalized 30 yards. The Saints were up by three points with less than four minutes to play when Thomas scored to push the lead to nine.

Was the celebration original? It was in an old-school, retro, vintage, way. In 2003, New Orleans’ receiver Joe Horn, a high school football and basketball star at Fayetteville Byrd High, pulled a phone out from the goal-post padding.

Horn is 46 now, and was moved by the Thomas tribute. Not saying that New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is old, but his first season with the Saints, in 2006, also was Horn’s last.

There are a lot of celebrations I can’t stand. If you prance into the end zone like Deion Sanders, you should be penalized 30 yards. If you strike the Heisman pose, you should be penalized 40.

The taunting is foolish and predictable. Look what it I did, look what I did, did you see what I did, ha-ha, I did it.

Pulling out a flip phone is not taunting.

If you’re talented enough to reach an NFL end zone, act as if your celebration has not been there before. Be original. If you can’t be the first to do it, be the second. But don’t be the third. If anybody pulls a phone from goal post padding after a touchdown this week, his team should be penalized.

What Thomas did was funny, and cool, and a tribute to a fine, fine, football player in Joe Horn.

The Saints won Sunday, and so did Thomas, and so did Horn, and so did fans.

Short takes: NASCAR’s new villain; Duke’s freshmen

Joey Logano has always struck me as a nice guy. He never was especially evil. And then, at Martinsville Speedway, he knocked Martin Truex Jr. out of the way, and by winning qualified for NASCAR’s championship race. Truex had raced Logano clean. Logano didn’t race Truex clean. He wanted to be where Truex was, so he took him out.

That was two races ago. Last week at Texas Motor Speedway, Logano knocked Aric Almirola around. The reviews from Truex and Almirola have not been good.

Since Kyle Busch turned nice(r), it’s as if Logano has engaged in a late-season campaign to take his place.

Regardless of the sport, a bad guy is required. Thus, the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, although they are harmless.

Some fans defend Logano by invoking Dale Earnhardt. What would Earnhardt have done? Well, he would have knocked Truex out of the way. But he was Dale Earnhardt, talented and tough, and, as the race wound down, the last guy you wanted to see behind you.

Despite his phenomenal success, Earnhardt was the working man’s driver. He was born in Kannapolis. Logano is from Connecticut…

I voted Tuesday. It was a big deal to me and, to a lesser extent, the candidates for which I voted. I wanted to vote. Better, I got to. But I don’t think everybody is obligated to. If you don’t follow politics, if you don’t prefer one party over the other, or one candidate over the other, why waste your time, and why waste ours by making a potentially long line longer?

That’s not sarcasm. Citizens are as entitled to decline to vote as they are to vote. If voting doesn’t feel like an opportunity, don’t do it…

Floyd Mayweather, undefeated as a boxer, has signed to fight Japanese kick boxing star Tenshin Nasukawa on New Year’s Eve in Saitama, Japan, outside of Tokyo.

For perspective, Nusukawa is 20, the same age as Charlotte Hornets’ guard Malik Monk, and Mayweather is 41, five years older than Hornets’ guard Tony Parker. Mayweather says the rules for the fight have yet to be established. But he’s not going to risk his undefeated record, and the legacy that goes with it, to box a kick-boxer.

In local boxing news, Christy Martin of Charlotte will promote a card Nov. 30 at CenterStage@NODA. Headlining the card will be undefeated middleweight Donnie Marshall of Raleigh against Javier Frasier of Aiken, S.C. Also featured will be Tyler McCreary of Toledo, Ohio, who is 15-0. He fights for Roc Nation Sports…

Do you care that Steve Smith Sr. brought his Carolina Panthers’ playbook with him when he signed with the Baltimore Ravens? Players are always going to divulge old secrets to their new team. Smith brought a printout. Was it a big deal that I brought my Minneapolis Tribune stylebook with me when I went to work for the Charlotte Observer? Nah….

Not sure how you spent your Tuesday evening, but options were plentiful. You had Kansas-Michigan State and Duke-Kentucky basketball, the Hornets at home against the Atlanta Hawks, and election returns tumbling in. If you were bored, the fault is yours.

Duke was overwhelming in its 34-point victory. All those young Blue Devils look as if they’ve played together for years.

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Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen