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Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic tests negative, but misses flight

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Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic re-tested negative for coronavirus in Serbia, but travel issues and the timing of the requisite testing made it difficult for the All-Star to join the team for its flight to Orlando, Florida, a source confirmed to ESPN.

The Nuggets departed Denver for Orlando on Tuesday, but the team would not confirm who was on the team flight.

A source said Jokic is healthy. However, the center had to produce two negative coronavirus tests in Serbia before traveling to the United States. And then he was required to produce two more negative tests before flying to Orlando with the team. A source said the timing of everything made it difficult and too tight of a fit for Jokic before the team departed on Tuesday.

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said last week that the team was working on getting Jokic back to the United States in time to join the team flight to Florida.

“Nikola feels great,” Malone said last Wednesday. “We are working on getting him back here. Next Tuesday we depart for Orlando; the hope and expectation is that Nikola Jokic will be with us on that plane. From everything that I have heard and talked to him, he feels great, he feels fine and is excited to get back.”

The Nuggets closed their team facility over a week ago after two members of the team’s 35-member traveling party tested positive for coronavirus, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported last week. Wojnarowksi and Brian Windhorst also reported on June 23 that Jokic tested positive for coronavirus while in Serbia and that his return to the United States was temporarily delayed.

Any player or staff member who has not tested negative for coronavirus in the two days prior to the Nuggets’ flight on Tuesday will travel to Orlando on their own once they produce two negative tests.

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Thunder, Jazz reflect on shutdown, then pick up where they left off

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Seconds before tipoff, as both the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder took their places at midcourt and waited for the ball to go up, there was a whistle, and a delay.

Fitting.

This time, though, it was just a small clock adjustment, and after it was quickly corrected, referee Scott Foster walked to the center circle and, almost five months late, officially tipped off the Thunder versus the Jazz.

“It was almost like an epiphany, right?” Thunder center Steven Adams said. “Just that weird feeling that you’re in it right now. This is what we’re doing now. The NBA’s properly started back up. It was an awesome feeling, definitely.”

It has been four months and 21 days, to be exact, since March 11, the night the NBA shut down in Oklahoma City with Rudy Gobert becoming Patient Zero as the COVID-19 pandemic became a tangible reality to North America. It’s the game that is seen as having stopped everything, a pivotal moment in both sports, and really, world history.

“That game was the start of everything being shut down,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “Not only in the NBA, but in our country.”

The Thunder picked up pretty much where they left off in March, pummeling the Jazz 110-94, never trailing and building a lead as large as 29 points. Chris Paul dictated the action, as he often does, pacing the Thunder with 18 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists, while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander added 19 points and 6 assists. There has been a lot of buzz about the improvements of some of OKC’s younger players during the hiatus, which is something that gives Paul confidence that the break might have brought out a better version of the Thunder.

“When you talk about that big gap we’ve had since March, to see how much better we’ve gotten as a team, to see [Andre] Roberson out there hooping,” Paul said, “it’s special and it almost gives you goosebumps.”

Paul and close friend Donovan Mitchell reflected before the game on the connection between the two teams and the magnitude of that moment in March as they both considered everything that has happened since.

“We had a conversation right before the game, it’s pretty surreal we ended up here kind of replaying the game,” Mitchell said. “We talked just about how crazy life has been since the last time we saw these guys. I think, honestly, it was kind of refreshing to go out there and play that game specifically, because you know it was kind of the one that really changed a lot throughout the world. I think for us to get out there, as an outsider, for the game itself, but as a whole moment for the NBA, I think it was a pretty special moment.”

The Jazz already played a game in Lake Buena Vista, Florida — a 106-104 win over the Pelicans — before facing the Thunder, but for OKC, facing Utah was seen by some players and staff as a bit of a poetic full-circle moment, a box that needed checking.

“I mean, it’s a hell of coincidence that that’s who our first game is against,” Paul said with a laugh before the game.

“From what transpired that night, with all the craziness, to people being in the unknown,” Thunder center Nerlens Noel said before the game, “fast-forward four or five months later and we’re here, ready to play basketball in a great, safe environment in the bubble that the NBA has done a great job with. So it’s time to get it done and face our fears.”

After Gobert’s positive test, the entire Jazz traveling party was tested for COVID-19 and only one player came back positive: Mitchell. As Jazz coach Quin Snyder prepped for the Thunder, watching film and making a game plan — which wasn’t all that different from the one he had ready for March 11, he said — he knew playing OKC would flood his mind with memories and reflections of the night sports stopped in America.

“What happened in OKC, it was historic,” Snyder said. “I think it’s hard to imagine when you look back at the circumstances that occurred, not only with the cancellation of the game and subsequently the season, but to have our two primary players, the two guys on our team that were in the All-Star Game, to have them both test positive and no one else in the group, was a little bit surreal. The whole evening was surreal.

“I think the last game against New Orleans in a lot of ways for us, just getting back on the court and reconnecting and playing basketball seemed like more than one game,” Snyder added. “It gave you a sense, our team a sense, our players in particular, even though that night in Oklahoma City was dramatic as it was, as we’ve been through the subsequent three or four months, it gives you an appreciation for how unimportant that game was, relative to all the people that have been fighting this virus. The health care workers who are on the front lines, people that have given their lives to protect other people. The many people that have gotten sick, the people that have tragically passed away. So that game starts to fade away as far as its importance on a larger scale.”

Before the game, both teams took a knee in solidarity in front of the Black Lives Matter emblem during the national anthem, which was performed by OKC singer Rob Clay from the floor of Chesapeake Energy Arena.

That arena, some 1,300 miles from NBA’s Florida “bubble,” remains almost entirely untouched from the night sports stopped. The hardwood floor is down, still shimmering under the stadium lights after being polished and disinfected following Gobert’s positive diagnosis. Media seating placards are still in place at the scorekeeper’s table, signage dots the concourses and even the Gatorade jugs bookend both teams’ benches. From there to Lake Buena Vista, in both the time and space between, as Snyder said, the league and the world have changed.

“At this point we’re battling COVID and we’re also battling social justice issues, so there are things that have replaced that game that are much more significant and important,” Snyder said. “That said, that game was a unique set of circumstances that we’ll never see again.”

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Celtics’ Marcus Smart fined $15K for criticizing overturned call against Bucks

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The Boston CelticsMarcus Smart was fined $15,000 on Saturday for criticizing the officiating following Friday night’s loss to the Milwuakee Bucks.

Smart said the referees gave him an “excuse” in explaining their decision to overturn a charge call against reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the closing minutes of Boston’s 119-112 loss to Milwaukee, a call that would have caused Antetokounmpo to foul out of the game.

“Wish we got a better one,” Smart said when asked if he’d received an explanation for the call. “The excuse was I was late on drawing the charge.

“Quite frankly, I think we all know what that was about. It was Giannis’ sixth foul. [The refs] didn’t want to get him out. Let’s just call that spade a spade.”

The play, which came at the 1-minute, 28-second mark of the fourth quarter, would have given the ball back to the Celtics with the score tied at 107. It also would have sent Antetokounmpo to the bench for the rest of the game. Instead, he was given a basket when the call was changed to a block — a basket that came after Antetokounmpo made a dribble move to fake out Jayson Tatum, then did a Eurostep to get into the lane and to the basket.

After Antetokounmpo made the free throw, Jaylen Brown missed a 3-pointer on Boston’s ensuing possession and Khris Middleton answered with a made 3 of his own, giving Milwaukee a 113-107 lead it wouldn’t relinquish the rest of the way.

Antetokounmpo said he felt Smart was moving on the play.

“First of all, that’s his opinion,” Antetokounmpo said of Smart afterward. “But at the end of the day, when I had the conversation with him, I respect him as a player.”

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Miami Heat’s Meyers Leonard chooses to stand during national anthem

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Miami Heat center Meyers Leonard stood during the national anthem before Saturday’s game against the Denver Nuggets, saying afterward he can be both a patriot and a supporter of Black Lives Matter.

“I think I can be a beacon of light … not only for my voice or platform and action, but in everything I’m doing,” Leonard, who is white, told Marc J. Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated after the game. “I certainly support Black Lives Matter. … I am very aware of what is going on. But I can be both. My patriotism runs deep.”

Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac was the first player in the NBA bubble to stand during the national anthem on Friday. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and assistant Becky Hammon also stood later Friday.

Leonard, who was the lone player at the game to stand, cited his respect for the U.S. military. His brother, Bailey Leonard, served two tours in Afghanistan with the Marines. But he noted that he doesn’t think kneeling is disrespectful.

And he said he struggled with his decision on what to do during the anthem.

“I haven’t slept. I’m a zombie right now. It’s been difficult because the truth of the matter is I have a loving heart, very compassionate and I’m very aware of what is happening in America today and what has been going on for many years,” Leonard told Spears.

Leonard ultimately stood with his hand over his heart and wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt over a jersey that said “Equality.” He said his decision came after tough and honest discussions in recent days with Heat teammates Jimmy Butler, Andre Iguodala and Udonis Haslem, as well as former Portland Trail Blazers teammates Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, and the Blazers’ director of security, Rick Riley.

“I (was) aware some of the backlash that could happen. I understand. However, I believe in my heart that I did the right thing,” Leonard told Spears. “Our world right now is black and white. There is a line in the sand, and it says if I don’t kneel, then I’m not with Black Lives Matter. That is not true.”

Leonard also spoke to his brother and Navy SEALs.

“I understand that (kneeling during the anthem) is not about the flag and the military, but to me, it is. Based upon real-life experiences and real raw emotion that I’ve had in my life, that is what that means to me,” said Leonard, who was wearing military boots, a backpack and mask.

He added: “And I’m hopeful that people that don’t know me can either learn or ask. I did in my heart what was right to me.”

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Leonard had the support of the locker room.

“Everybody knows where his heart is and he’s fully behind this (Black Lives Matter) movement just like everybody else in our organization, and in this association,” Spoelstra said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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