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Kemba Walker — Jayson Tatum ‘best player on the court’ in Celtics’ 2OT win vs. Clippers

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BOSTON — Since Kemba Walker signed with the Boston Celtics last summer, he has repeatedly spoken about the potential Jayson Tatum possesses.

And after Tatum turned in a master class performance Thursday night, finishing with 39 points and nine rebounds in just under 48 minutes in Boston’s 141-133 double-overtime victory over the LA Clippers in the final game before he appears in his first All-Star Game, Walker had more to say.

“Thus far, yeah,” Walker said, when asked if this had been the best game Tatum had ever played. “He was incredible. He made every right play. He made every big shot.

“He was the best player on the court tonight.”

By saying, “thus far,” Walker insinuated Tatum has more levels to grow his game from here. But if this is as good as it gets, the Celtics will still be quite happy.

Tatum checked every box in this one. Durability? In a double-overtime game, he played more minutes than anyone on the court. Efficient scoring? He finished the game 14-for-23 from the field, including going 5-for-10 from 3-point range. Foul drawing? He finished the game with 10 free throw attempts, tying his career high (and also showing the one blemish on his performance, as he made only six of them).

And defensively? All Tatum did was hold Kawhi Leonard to 3-for-11 shooting in the game when he was guarding him — including 1-for-7 from the field in the fourth quarter and the two overtime periods, according to Second Spectrum’s player tracking data.

It was a tour de force of a performance — one that came against one of the league’s best teams, and its best players (at his position) as Tatum prepares to head to Chicago this weekend. And, afterward, he admitted that getting the chance to play against players like Leonard and Paul George, who left the game in the second quarter with a strained left hamstring, helped boost his level of play.

“Any time you get a chance to play against guys you look up to, or arguably are the best guys in the league, it definitely kind of raises your level of play,” Tatum told ESPN. “I enjoy competing against the best players.”

Tatum was not only competing against the best players — he looked like one of them. On a night full of superlative performances and impressive moments on both sides — Marcus Smart finished with 31 points, including scoring Boston’s first 10 points of the game; Lou Williams had 35 points and eight assists, including nearly beating the Celtics by himself in the fourth quarter; Leonard had 28 points, 11 rebounds and four assists; and Walker had 19 points, nine rebounds and seven assists — his clearly stood out among the rest.

“It’s just his maturity with it,” Smart said. “He takes his time with it, and we trust him 120%. He knows it, there’s the extra confidence he already has and it’s more confidence for him, to go out there and be the player we see in him.

“He’s doing a great job, but you can definitely tell that he’s matured, he’s put in that work, and it’s all showing him. Not just for him, but for this team. It’s amazing.”

Tatum has previously said that he holds players like Leonard and George up as the models for what he aspires to be: an elite two-way player. During Tatum’s time with Team USA, they were the two names that Gregg Popovich threw at him as examples of what the Hall of Fame coach thinks he can become.

Going up against them Thursday night, those aspirations and potential gave way to more tangible proof that he’s at least approaching their level — with the fact the All-Star Game lies on the horizon only as an added bonus.

“It’s fun [to see],” Walker said of Tatum’s growth. “I’m glad I get to be a part of it. It’s just special.

“He’s been playing really well, but not only has he been scoring, he’s just been making the right play. I think that’s what’s most important. You’re driving and kicking, he’s seeing his reads, and he’s doing the right things.”

Tatum did so many right things on Thursday night. And, as a result, the Celtics went into the All-Star break with a 38-16 record, having won eight of their final nine games before the break, and are firmly ensconced as the Eastern Conference’s third seed. It’s a far cry from last year’s tumultuous season, one that ended with a thud in a five-game loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, or even Team USA’s disappointing seventh place finish in the FIBA World Cup — in which Tatum missed the medal round with an ankle sprain.

But after Thursday’s game, Tatum admitted the trials and tribulations of last season have helped him learn how to reach the level of play he showed Thursday night.

“I think all those things have helped put me in the position I am now,” Tatum said, “and upped my level of play as I continue to try to figure this out.”

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Russell Westbrook scores 34 points after being guarded by Rudy Gobert

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SALT LAKE CITY — The most fascinating matchup in the potential playoff preview Saturday night at Vivint Smart Home Arena pitted the tallest man on the floor against the shortest, a 7-foot-1 two-time reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year guarding a 6-foot-3 recent MVP.

The Houston Rockets‘ unprecedented commitment to a small-ball approach forces opponents to come up with unconventional game plans, such as the Utah Jazz giving center Rudy Gobert the assignment of guarding point guard Russell Westbrook.

“I don’t know if it’s working,” Westbrook said with a grin after scoring 34 points on 14-of-26 shooting a 120-110 win that pulled the Rockets even with the Jazz for fourth place in the Western Conference standings and clinched the series tiebreaker.

“I get what I want, get whatever I want. Get to the basket and shoot, drive and kick, pace and speed. It’s something you can’t scout for. You can scout moves, you can scout for all that, but speed you can’t scout for. And that’s what I’ve got to my advantage.”

It’s the second time in the last two weeks that the Jazz have used the strategy. Westbrook scored 39 points on 18-of-33 shooting in a 114-113 home loss to the Jazz on Feb. 9, when Utah’s Bojan Bogdanovic hit a tightly contested 29-foot buzzer-beater to beat the Rockets.

The Rockets put teams in a bind by surrounding NBA scoring leader James Harden and Westbrook with 3-point threats. Opponents often blink, to use Houston coach Mike D’Antoni’s term, by trying to match up with their own small lineups.

That’s not an option the Jazz are willing to consider, considering the value of their All-Star center.

“Obviously it didn’t work, but teams are going to have to try guarding different things,” said Harden, who had 38 points on 13-of-23 shooting and seven assists. “If they want to have Rudy Gobert out there, then they’ve got to find out who he’s going to guard.”

The most logical answer, Jazz coach Quin Snyder has concluded, is to put Gobert on Westbrook. Gobert’s rim protection would be mitigated if he guarded P.J. Tucker, who is listed as a center but is utilized offensively almost solely as a 3-point shooter, pulling his man away from the basket. Gobert sags far off Westbrook, daring him to take the jumper that the All-Star guard typically hits at a subpar percentage, and limiting his opportunities as a facilitator.

“I think I would do it again,” Gobert said. “Having Russ being guarded by one of our guards is a mismatch. When I’m guarding him, at least he doesn’t get to the rim. He’s going to miss shots, he’s going to make shots, but at least he doesn’t break us down and bring the double team and find his teammates.

“We make him work. That’s pretty much it. We make him work, and he’s able to make those shots sometimes and sometimes he’s not. We’ve got to live with that and do what we do.”

Westbrook is shooting only 40.9% on midrange jumpers this season, according to NBA.com/stats, but he was 7-of-13 on those shots in Saturday’s win. The Rockets came up with wrinkles that allowed Westbrook, whose four assists matched his total from the other matchup with the Jazz this month, to basically walk into some of those shots.

For example, after the Rockets pulled within seven points with just under four minutes remaining in the game, Harden brought the ball up the floor and dished the ball to Westbrook on a dribble handoff that served as a screen. When Gobert went underneath to cut off Westbrook’s driving lane, Westbrook swished an uncontested jumper from the left elbow.

“That’s cash,” Westbrook said. “Cotton shot. Me and my pops worked on that since I was 14 years old. Cash money.”

Westbrook has consistently dominated since the Rockets fully committed to playing a small-ball style by attacking the basket. He has converted 67.8% (61-of-90) of his shots in the restricted area during the seven games Westbrook has played since former Houston center Clint Capela’s last game with the Rockets.

Westbrook was 5-of-9 in the restricted area Saturday night. Of those five baskets, the only one that came off a drive out of a halfcourt set happened when Gobert was off the floor. Westbrook finished over the Gobert after grabbing an offensive rebound, had a pair of dunks in transition and caught an alley-oop from Harden when he cut backdoor behind the Jazz big man, a highlight that happened immediately after a trash-talk exchange with a fan sitting courtside.

“Before the oop, the guy was telling me, ‘Shoot the 3! Shoot the 3! Gobert’s the best defensive player in the league’,” Westbrook said. “I said, ‘OK, OK,’ and while he was talking, I went backdoor. It happened that quick.”

The Rockets are used to facing unique defensive schemes. Harden is frequently doubled as far as 40 feet from the basket as opponents try to force the ball out of his hands, a tactic that has become less effective as Westbrook has become more comfortable with after an offseason in which he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and switched teams after spending the previous 11 seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Houston went all in on small ball in large part to open up the floor for their two All-Star playmakers, who have led the Rockets to seven wins in the nine games since going to a 6-foot-7-and-less lineup.

“Every game is going to be different,” Harden said. “Obviously, every team’s scheme is different. If we lock in and are engaged, no matter what they’re doing defensively, they can’t stop it.”

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Sixers’ Ben Simmons to get MRI after injuring lower back

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Amid concerns of an injury, Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons will undergo an MRI on his lower back on Sunday, league sources tell ESPN.

Simmons left the Sixers’ 119-98 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks after tweaking his back in the first quarter. Sources described Simmons as emotional upon leaving the X-ray room at the Fiserv Forum late Saturday.

There is some level of concern surrounding the possible nature of the injury, league sources tell ESPN. A clearer picture is expected after testing on Sunday in Philadelphia.

Simmons left the game after playing less than five minutes, during which he tallied five points and two rebounds.

Simmons missed the Sixers’ victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday with lower back soreness.

Simmons is averaging 16.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 8.3 assists for the Sixers this season. The 76ers are currently the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.

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Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to level up and be decisively great

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MILWAUKEE – With Lil Wayne’s “Kobe Bryant” song blasting throughout Fiserv Forum, reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo went through an intense pre-game workout, two hours ahead of the tip-off against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday.

Once the sweaty, 6-foot-11 Milwaukee Bucks superstar wrapped up on the court, he hit the locker room for recovery with his legs stretched out in NormaTec recovery boots while studying film inside his stall next to Bucks assistant Ben Sullivan.

He then displayed the same determination, focus, and drive that he does on every night while leading the Bucks to a 119-98 victory against All-Star big man Joel Embiid and the visiting Sixers in the midst of an historic start.

“Not trying to be selfish, because people confuse focusing on yourself and selfish as two different things,” said Antetokounmpo, who ended with 31 points on 12-17 shooting from the field, 17 rebounds and eight assists.

“I’m just trying to get better because I know that my team wants me to be better and I know when getting better, I can help my team win easily, put them in the right spots easily. It just makes the game for my teammates a lot easier so that’s my mindset,” Antetokounmpo continued. “We’ve got 26 more games until the playoffs. Just try to take as much of these 26 games, play good basketball, learn as much as possible, take notes watch clips, so I can make my mind stronger and smarter and that’s pretty much it.”

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Giannis Antetokounmpo talks about how the Bucks need to get better before the playoffs and whether he can get sleep with his newborn son.

Just two nights earlier, Embiid declared himself as the “best player in the world.” But Antetokounmpo was the clear-cut best player on the floor in their head-to-head matchup Saturday as the Bucks improved to an NBA-best 48-8.

“At the end of the day, I feel like Joel is a great guy. Obviously, when I go on the court, I’m going to go as hard as I can but off the court, I like him. I like his personality, he’s a down to earth guy,” Antetokounmpo said of Embiid. “We were good teammates in the All-Star game, but at the end of the day, every player in the NBA should feel like he’s the best player. Like who am I to tell him he’s not the best player in the world? Who are we to tell him that he’s not the best player in the world?

“Everybody should feel that way but at the end of the day, you’ve got to go on the court and if you feel that way you’ve got to show it so there’s nothing wrong with Joel feeling like he’s the best player in the world,” he added.

Embiid was held scoreless in the opening quarter, but contributed 17 points with 11 boards and four assists without All-Star teammate Ben Simmons, who exited with 7 minutes, 16 seconds remaining in the opening quarter with lower back tightness.

But Embiid struggled with efficiency on offense, making only 5-of-18 field goals and committing four turnovers. With Embiid as Antetokounmpo’s primary defender, Antetokounmpo went 5-for-8 from the field with 12 points — his best game of the season against Embiid’s defense.

Outside of Antetokounmpo’s 8-for-27 performance with 18 points on Christmas Day, he averages 39.2 points on 57 percent shooting in five other games versus Embiid’s 76ers, under Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, per ESPN Stats & Information research.

The Bucks scored 54 points on 44 possessions when Antetokounmpo had a touch — an average of 1.23 points per play. According to Second Spectrum, Antetokounmpo made eight uncontested shots, which is the most in a game in his career, regular season or playoffs. He made four field goals in the paint, 2 mid-range and then 2 3-pointers – including a trey at 10:14 in the fourth which he followed up with a Steph Curry-style shimmy celebration dance.

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Giannis Antetokounmpo knocks down the 3-pointer then does a little shimmy down the court.

Milwaukee centers Brook Lopez and Robin Lopez drew the majority of the defensive assignments versus Embiid, which prompted Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe to declare Brook as the “Defensive Player of the Year.”

But following the Bucks’ 18th 20-point win of the season, it was their MVP who proved to be the star among stars. His 11 consecutive points out of halftime followed by a string of assists helped seal the win for Milwaukee as they’ve now won 16 of their last 18 games.

Antetokounmpo has established himself as the best scorer in the NBA in two facets: in the paint, and on the fast break.

When it comes to points in the paint this season, Antetokounmpo leads all scorers with 17.9 interior points per game this season. Antetokounmpo made 7-of-8 baskets in the paint Saturday night against the 76ers for 14 points.

When it comes to points on the break, Antetokounmpo leads all scorers with 6.3 fastbreak points per game this season. Against Philadelphia, Antetokounmpo scored nine points on the break.

And according to Second Spectrum, the Bucks scored 54 points on 44 possessions when Giannis Antetokounmpo had a touch on Saturday, an average of 1.23 points per play. By comparison, The 76ers scored 27 points on 37 possessions when Joel Embiid had a touch on Saturday night, an average of 0.73 points per play.

On Saturday, that ultimately led to the Bucks earning their 18th 20-point win of the season. That’s tied for the 3rd-most through 60 games in NBA history, according to ESPN Stats and Info. Decisive wins, led by a decisive offensive centerpiece.

“That’s what we want him to do,” Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton said of Antetokounmpo. “We want him to play aggressive and prove that he’s the best player on the court every night and we’re going to be right behind him backing him up.”

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