This Is Brandon Graham's Time

This Is Brandon Graham's Time

Jason Babin, he of 18 sacks a season ago, suffered a calf strain over the weekend that originally was thought would cost him a week of training camp. An MRI revealed a more significant strain however, and now there is talk Babin could miss the entire preseason.

Assuming that's all the Birds' prolific pass rusher misses, a defensive line that racked up a league-best 46 sacks in 2011 is still largely intact for September 9 kickoff. In the meantime though, Babin's absence gives Brandon Graham a shot to work himself back into the rotation after essentially losing last year to his recovery from microfracture surgery.

Already a bust in the eyes of many fans, the 13th overall selection from the 2010 Draft was having a quietly productive rookie season until he tore his ACL in Week 14. The damage was extensive, and Graham faced with a long road back.

There seems to be this perception that Graham is either hurt all the time, or he plain isn't good enough to get on the field. The reality is Graham has had just the one serious injury in his NFL career, but it was severe enough -- and the timing bad enough -- that his chances of being productive in year two were always in doubt.

Graham was dinged up a bit during his rookie season, but managed to appear in all 13 games before his ACL went, starting in six. And while he only got to the quarterback three times, Pro Football Focus named him to their All-Rookie Team, and explained he graded as the most effective rookie pass rusher at end based on total pressures.

The injury was a major setback obviously, especially because it happened so late in the season. Recovery time for an ACL can already be up to a year. When it was later revealed microfracture surgery was also involved, the feeling was Graham would not be ready last September.

Sure enough, he wasn't. Graham started 2011 on the PUP list, and once activated he would only play 56 snaps over three games. After the Eagles were officially eliminated from playoff contention, the team shut Graham down for the remainder.

2012 is really the first time the Michigan product has been healthy since his rookie year, but expectations are still low for those who toss around the bust label like it's nothing. For some, it's as simple as a first-round pick has accomplished nothing in his first two years. Others see safety Earl Thomas -- the 14th pick in '10 -- making the Pro Bowl for Seattle while Eagles safeties scuttle. That said, if Graham is 100%, he still has the potential to be an impact player.

For what it's worth, Graham has embraced the bust term, and even uses it as motivation. Now he's working with the first-team defense while Babin tends to his own injury. That means once preseason games get underway, Graham will finally have an opportunity to leave fans -- and more importantly, coaches -- with a new impression. From there, who knows. Maybe the Birds will make good on that pick after all.

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

NEW YORK -- John Wall had 29 points and 13 assists, scoring Washington's final four points in the last 32 seconds as the surging Wizards beat the New York Knicks 113-110 on Thursday night.

Otto Porter Jr. made six 3-pointers for the second straight night and added 23 points, but the Wizards needed big plays from Wall down the stretch to win their fourth in a row.

He made two free throws to put Washington back on top after New York had rallied to take a 110-109 lead, then rebounded Carmelo Anthony's miss and left all the Knicks in his dust as he raced down the floor for a dunk with 13.7 seconds to play.

Anthony finished with 34 points but Wall stole the ball from Brandon Jennings to prevent the Knicks from attempting a 3-pointer that could have tied it (see full recap).

Leonard scores 34 to lead Spurs over Nuggets
SAN ANTONIO -- Kawhi Leonard scored 34 points, rookie Dejounte Murray added a season-high 24 and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a pregame injury to Pau Gasol in beating the Denver Nuggets 118-104 on Thursday night.

Denver's three-game winning streak was snapped despite a career-high 35 points from Nikola Jokic.

Leonard had his fifth straight 30-point performance, right after learning he will start for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game for the second consecutive season.

The Spurs were unexpectedly without Gasol, Tony Parker and then coach Gregg Popovich. Gasol and Parker were both late scratches due to injury, and Popovich was ejected for the first time this season.

Gasol broke the ring finger on his left (non-shooting) hand by jamming it against Kyle Anderson's shoulder during pregame warmups while attempting a running hook. The 16-year veteran center immediately clutched his hand and left the court.

X-rays revealed the break, and the Spurs said there is no timeline for Gasol's return.

Irving, James lead Cavs over Suns
CLEVELAND -- Kyrie Irving scored 26 points, All-Star teammate LeBron James had 21 points and 15 assists, and the Cleveland Cavaliers looked more like themselves at home in a 118-103 win over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night.

The Cavs were back in Quicken Loans Arena following a six-game road trip (their longest of the season) that concluded with an embarrassing 35-point loss at Golden State. But on their home floor, they had better offensive balance and ball movement while improving to 30-11 -- the same record Cleveland had at the halfway point of its 2016 NBA championship season.

Channing Frye scored 18, Iman Shumpert 17 and James Jones 14 while filling in for star forward Kevin Love, still bothered by back spasms.

Tyson Chandler had 22 points and 16 rebounds, but the Suns lost for the fourth time in five games (see full recap).

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS -- Andre Burakovsky, T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov each had a goal and an assist to lead the Washington Capitals to a 7-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Thursday night.

Jay beagle, Brett Connolly, Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams also scored, and Alex Ovechkin and Daniel Winnik each had two assists to help Washington earn at least a point in its 12th straight game (10-0-2) for an NHL-best 66 points.

Braden Holtby bounced back from his roughest outing of the season with 22 saves. Holtby was pulled after giving up a season-high five goals on 26 shots in an 8-7 overtime loss at Pittsburgh on Monday. He improved to 22-8-4 and 5-0 lifetime against St. Louis (see full recap).

Grabner scores 2 goals, Rangers top Leafs
TORONTO -- Michael Grabner scored two goals against his former team, helping the New York Rangers snap a three-game losing streak with a 5-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.

Pavel Buchnevich, Brady Skjei and J.T. Miller added goals for New York, and Henrik Lundqvist made 23 saves following a series of rough outings.

Tyler Bozak and Zach Hyman scored for Toronto, which had a three-game winning streak stopped. The Maple Leafs had earned 21 of a possible 26 points in their previous 13 games (10-2-1). Frederik Andersen gave up four goals on 40 shots (see full recap).

Tavares leads Islanders to shutout of Stars
NEW YORK -- Getting a new coach this week didn't change things much for the Islanders -- and oddly enough, that's a good thing for New York.

John Tavares narrowly missed out on his second hat trick in a week, Thomas Greiss got his second straight shutout and the Islanders beat the Dallas Stars 3-0 on Thursday night in their first game since firing longtime coach Jack Capuano.

New York canned Capuano in the middle of his seventh season Tuesday, replacing him on an interim basis with Doug Weight (see full recap).

Niederreiter, Wild dodge letdown, edge Coyotes
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Nino Niederreiter had two power-play goals and an assist, including the go-ahead score for the Minnesota Wild with 7:06 remaining in a 4-3 victory over Arizona on Thursday night after the Coyotes came back from a two-goal deficit.

With Shane Doan in the penalty box for hooking, Niederreiter knocked in a nifty redirect of Mikael Granlund's slap shot for the winner. Devan Dubnyk stopped 20 shots for the Wild, who are 18-2-2 in their last 22 games.

Louis Domingue made 21 saves for the Coyotes, who lost their fourth in a row and fell to 2-12-1 in their last 15 games starting with a 4-1 loss to Minnesota in Arizona on Dec. 17 (see full recap).