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Don’t ‘vilify’ Gregg Popovich, Becky Hammon for standing during anthem

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Wearing Black Lives Matter shirts, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and assistant coach Becky Hammon opted to stand while players and coaches on the Spurs and Sacramento Kings kneeled during the national anthem Friday night.

Popovich, who has long spoken out against racial injustice, explained he preferred to keep his decision to stand “to myself” and that “everybody has to make a personal decision.”

Popovich’s star guard DeMar DeRozan said people should not “vilify” either Popovich or Hammon for standing.

“With Pop and Becky standing, I have no thoughts [contrary to] belief in them that is all out of genuine, out of a positive side of their heart,” DeRozan said after finishing with 27 points and 10 assists in the Spurs’ 129-120 win over the Kings in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. “Same way we kneel. Don’t take away nothing from those guys.

“You know Pop speaks out. When it comes to Becky, she’s been [on the] front line, fighting for equality since I’ve been a fan of hers playing in the WNBA. So everybody has their own right of making a statement and you can’t vilify nobody for not doing what the other group is doing. I’m all for it.”

Popovich, who is also the head coach of the USA men’s basketball team, graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 1970 with a degree in Soviet studies. He played at Air Force and served his five-year military commitment upon graduation.

“I prefer to keep that to myself,” Popovich politely said when asked about his decision to stand during the anthem. “Everybody has to make a personal decision. The league has been great about that. Everybody has the freedom to react any way that they want. For whatever reasons that I have, I reacted the way I wanted to.”

Before the game, Popovich said that it was up to each player and coach to decide whatever they wanted to do during the anthem. But he also made it clear that all of the teams in Orlando intend to maintain the momentum of the protests against social injustice and systemic racism in a variety of ways.

Popovich has spoken out countless times against racism and the history of mistreatment of Blacks in America.

“Considering what’s going on in our country with race, it’s always been our national sin and it’s always been something that has never been faced as well as it should have been,” Popovich said on Friday afternoon prior to the game. “And with the events that we’ve all witnessed in this last year, it’s just logical and wise to keep that momentum going … because it is a national embarrassment. It keeps us from being the country that we should be or the country that was promised to everyone.

“And nothing could be more poignant than to have all of the teams here all committed to making statements and letting it be known that this has got to change and not just a little bit.”

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Coach Monty Williams proud of his ‘scrappy team,’ as Suns keep streaking during NBA restart

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As the Phoenix Suns continue riding the momentum that comes with being the hottest team in basketball — the only remaining undefeated team in the NBA’s bubble after winning their fifth straight game over the Miami Heat on Saturday night — star point guard Devin Booker said he believes the franchise is finally heading in the right direction after years of futility and unfulfilled promise.

“I think this is just kind of a turning point for us,” Booker said after scoring 35 points and dishing out six assists in the 119-112 victory. “We had stretches in the season where we played very well, but as what happens to a young team throughout the season, you have your ups and downs. I think if we stay consistent and stick with our principles — the communication on defense, just getting more comfortable in these situations of games and meaningful games that matter for us.”

Most important for the Suns, their stunning surge has pulled them to just a half-game behind the Portland Trail Blazers for the ninth seed in the West and just two games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth spot with three seeding games left to play.

Suns coach Monty Williams had to chuckle when asked why his young team’s focus has been so good since the season restarted at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, last month.

“You’re really giving me a lot of credit, man,” Willams said. “I don’t really know. I could give you some coach-speak, but I don’t know. I just think we have a group that wanted to come here and prove to the world that they were worthy of being here. They heard a lot of the stuff being said. I think when people say stuff about you, you want to prove them wrong. If I had to guess that would be it, but this is who we are.

“We’ve been competitive all year; we’ve been a scrappy team. We play teams hard, we share the ball, we try to make the right plays. We’ve tried to stick to our DNA and not get outside of that.”

Many people around the league questioned the Suns’ inclusion when the NBA announced its 22-team restart. The Suns were 26-39 when the season was suspended on March 11 and appeared too far away to even have a chance at a playoff berth. But Booker’s scoring prowess coupled with a renewed cohesion and contributions up and down the roster from the young group has made the Suns the darlings of the league over the past two weeks.

For Booker, the winning has been even sweeter, given some of the criticism he’s dealt with over the past few years because of all the losing. Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green said on Friday’s edition of “Inside the NBA” that “it’s not good for [Booker’s] career” to stay in Phoenix.

“I feel like that’s important for this organization, for the fans that have stuck by us for this long and still do so,” Booker said when asked about Green’s comments. “Since I’ve been in Phoenix, we haven’t had the win success that we had, but the support’s been there. And this is what we owe to the fans, we owe to the organization. It’s been a long time for us and I think this bubble opportunity was big for us, and we’re taking advantage of it.”

One of the reasons the Suns pulled off the win on Saturday night was because of the dogged play of guard Jevon Carter. The West Virginia alum had 20 points — hitting six 3-pointers — while earning rave reviews from his teammates and coach.

“JC, he’s the bulldog of the team,” Williams said. “He had not shot the ball well the last few games and he remarked to one of the coaches that he was going to hit five or something like that. We didn’t know, but he’s a gamer.”

The Suns — who have now won five straight for the first time since December 2014, according to ESPN Stats & Information research — head into a Monday showdown with the Oklahoma City Thunder hopeful that they can continue their torrid play.

“A lot of guys grew up in these three or four months,” Suns point guard Ricky Rubio said. “It seems like a second season with all of them with the same coach, and it helps to see the growth with this team. We have more room to improve … but we have eight games, and we know we have to go 8-0.”

ESPN staff writer Tim Bontemps contributed to this report.

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Luka Doncic’s 19 assists steal the show as Mavericks top Bucks

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — With just over a minute to go in overtime Saturday night, Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic took the ball from Kristaps Porzingis and began dribbling to the left side of the lane, with Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo — the reigning NBA MVP and the presumptive winner of both that award and Defensive Player of the Year this season — watching him like a hawk.

Then, out of nowhere, Doncic — using his left (non-shooting) hand — suddenly slipped the ball between his legs and past Antetokounmpo, right into the hands of teammate Maxi Kleber, who caught the ball on the move and, all in one motion, leapt into the air and slammed the ball home — and got fouled on the play, to boot.

The play was the last of Doncic’s career-high 19 assists, to go along with 36 points, 14 rebounds and just two turnovers in 42 minutes, as the Mavericks beat the Bucks 136-132 in overtime inside the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort.

“I clapped,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “I applauded. I thought it was phenomenal. The sign of a great player, a truly great player, is the ability to pull off something like that against a team like Milwaukee, that gives up virtually nothing in the paint.

“We’re seeing more things all the time. Luka is not only a great basketball player, he’s a great performer. I’d pay money to watch him play. I don’t say that about a lot of players, but he’s really special.”

Doncic certainly showed how special he both is, and could be, on this night, going toe-to-toe with Antetokounmpo — who was no slouch himself, finishing with 34 points and 13 rebounds in 33 minutes before fouling out in overtime — and coming out on top.

“It’s amazing,” Antetokounmpo said. “He’s playing great basketball. He’s a great basketball player, makes his teammates better. Talented … really talented. One of the most talented guys I’ve ever played against.

“He’s making the whole team better, and he’s going to keep getting better. As long as he makes his team better, they’re going to be tough to beat.”

But all anyone could talk about afterward was The Pass.

“With Luka,” Kleber said, “you always have to expect to get a pass.”

“Unbelievable,” said Porzingis, who had 24 points and 13 rebounds before he also fouled out in overtime. “Not only the way the pass was, but also at the moment in the game. To make that pass and to have the — what’s a good word — to have the courage to do it?

“That’s just who Luka is.”

The only person who didn’t have much to say about it was Doncic himself.

“I don’t know why I did it,” Doncic said. “I just did it. I didn’t think about it.

“I saw it, and I didn’t think about it before right in the moment.”

That play was just one of many both spectacular and critical moments from Doncic throughout this game, including hitting a pair of free throws late in regulation to tie the game and knocking down a floater on the possession after Kleber’s dunk to salt the game away.

For Dallas to be able to close out a game like this, particularly against a team as good as the league-leading Bucks, was something Carlisle was thrilled about afterward — especially after the Mavericks had already blown fourth-quarter leads against the Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns in their first two games inside the bubble.

“This is a game where the team showed great resiliency,” Carlisle said. “A lot of the demons of our past bubble games were staring us in the face.”

This time, though, the Mavericks succeeded where they had previously failed. And they did so because Doncic made sure to lead them there.

The Mavericks had the best offense in NBA history by offensive rating this season, and watching this game — against one of the best defenses in the league — it was easy to see why. Doncic carved the Bucks up throughout the game, spraying one pass after another out to shooters on the perimeter — particularly Dorian Finney-Smith, who was assisted on all six of his 3-pointers in the game by Doncic.

Doncic’s performance earned him his 17th triple-double of the season — the most in the NBA — and assured that he would not be caught in that category. That will make him the youngest player in NBA history to lead the league in triple-doubles, surpassing Magic Johnson — who was a couple of months older when he led the NBA with six triple-doubles in 1980-81, also his second NBA season.

“As a guard with the ball in his hands as much as it is, there’s nobody that jumps to my mind,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said, when asked whom Doncic reminds him of at this age. “I mean, Tim Duncan as a second-year player was pretty amazing. Tim Duncan as a first-year player, but they’re built very differently. So there’s been some great players come into our league and done special things in their first year or two, but with the ball in his hands, the way it is, to do the things he does is very impressive.”

Both Doncic and the Mavericks are far from finished products. He won’t turn 22 until 2021 — the same year Dallas will hope to strike it rich in free agency and lure another star, with a list of candidates led by Antetokounmpo, to come play alongside Doncic and Porzingis. But Doncic is good enough now that the Mavericks will make the playoffs in his second season in the league — something players such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant were unable to do.

Nights like this one — and plays like the pass Doncic made to Kleber — are examples of why that’s the case.

“He knows where everybody is, not only on offense, but defense, and that’s the sign of a savant-type guy,” Carlisle said. “I’ve played with Larry Bird. He could see everything like that. I had the privilege of coaching Jason Kidd. He could see everything like that. Luka is in that same mold.”

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The Giannis-Luka rivalry can define the NBA’s future

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During the final moments of the first five-minute quarter of the Milwaukee Bucks’ first five-on-five scrimmage since the NBA’s shutdown in March, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s team found itself down a bucket. When a long miss by the opposing team caromed off the rim and floated toward the baseline, Antetokounmpo launched himself with both feet, and splayed himself horizontally across the baseline plane to lunge for the loose ball.

Upon watching their leader risk bodily harm in pursuit of an inconsequential possession, teammates gasped collectively. The practice court in the bubble is mounted a few inches above the floor, an awkward margin that should give anyone, let alone a superstar, pause. The team had all but sewn up the East’s No. 1 seed, with little riding on the final regular season games other than re-finding their rhythm and arriving into the postseason healthy.

But there was Antetokounmpo, behaving as if a title was on the line, injuries be damned. He snared the ball before it fell to the hardwood, and tipped it back to Kyle Korver.

“What he does is insane,” says Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer. “It’s a level of competitiveness that sets a tone for everyone — not just players, but the staff and the entire organization.”

Giannis’ team ultimately won the scrimmage, though it was a result that wasn’t recorded and largely forgotten by all present. What they did remember was Antetokounmpo’s dive. Over the next week, Wes Matthews, Marvin Williams and others, have laid out themselves for seemingly inconsequential possessions. Antetokounmpo set the bar that first scrimmage, and the Bucks have cleared it.

Over in the Dallas Mavericks’ camp, the team was reacquainting itself with its top-ranked offense. As an exercise in recall that’s not uncommon in Dallas, head coach Rick Carlisle drew one of the Mavericks’ sets on a whiteboard, and asked the players to identify it by name.

The group included several veteran players, a couple of whom had been in Dallas for a few seasons. But it was Luka Doncic who called out the play, even though the Mavericks hadn’t run it with any regularity since the opening weeks of the season. Only Doncic didn’t use the play’s 2019-20 name, but rather its designated name from the previous season.

“This is the way his computer works,” says Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle. “He can remember everything from this year and last year. His basketball recall is part of his brilliant basketball mind.”

While Antetokounmpo and Doncic certainly aren’t the only NBA players who will abandon caution in practice to set a tone, or possess computer-like brains that can simulate NBA basketball on a whim, they are extreme outliers in a league of outliers. These qualities are essential ingredients in their respective stardoms, which were on display Saturday night in Orlando, just the third meeting between them.

Doncic’s Mavericks prevailed 136-132 in overtime, but the game revealed a glimpse of a future that seems inevitable: a rivalry that could define the NBA for a generation with parallel career paths, potential Finals showdowns, and a co-branding partnership of sorts that could represent the NBA the world over.

While both came to the NBA as European teenagers, Antetokounmpo and Doncic achieved their superstardom quite differently. Antetokounmpo was a 19-year-old playing in a second-tier Greek league, averaging fewer than 10 points per game. Even on the eve of the NBA draft, only a small handful of NBA teams had seen him play live basketball. By the time Doncic was 17, he was named the ACB’s Player of the Week after putting up 23 points and 11 assists for one of the preeminent professional basketball teams in the world. If Antetokounmpo was a curio, Doncic was the Second Coming.

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