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While starring in return, Blazers’ Jusuf Nurkic worried for grandmother with COVID-19

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In what was already an emotional outing with it being his first official game back since breaking his leg in March 2019, Jusuf Nurkic revealed after the Portland Trail Blazers140-135 overtime victory Friday over the Memphis Grizzlies that his grandmother is in a coma with COVID-19.

“The last couple of days have been the toughest days of my life. My grandma got COVID and she’s in a coma,” Nurkic said. “I think people don’t realize the s— is real out there. We’ve been fortunate to be here in a safe environment, we’re tested every day, but please take care of yourself, wear a damn mask if you need to wear it.”

Nurkic played 33 minutes in his return, providing the Blazers much-needed size and rim protection (six blocks), while also diversifying Portland’s offense (18 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists) before fouling out late in the fourth quarter.

Nurkic said he found out the Friday of the Blazers’ first scrimmage during the NBA restart about his 67-year-old grandmother, Hana, who lives in Bosnia.

“His mood changed immediately,” Portland guard CJ McCollum said. After finding out, Nurkic said he didn’t sleep at all that night.

McCollum said he went to Nurkic’s room to check on him because it was so obvious something was going on.

“His heart is somewhere else, but his body is here, so we’ll just try to uplift him,” McCollum said. “Tough situation for him to be so far away from his family and be out here competing, so give him a lot of credit for coming out here battling with a heavy heart.”

Nurkic, 25, said he was FaceTiming his grandmother and was told about her condition, but she said she didn’t want to go to the hospital.

“She didn’t want to go to the hospital in the first place and finally I said, ‘If you don’t go, I come,'” Nurkic said. “I think that kind of made up her mind to go to the hospital. Hopefully it’s not too late.”

Nurkic’s return for the Blazers is a game-changer as they try to make a push for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. And the fact Friday’s game was against the Grizzlies, the team they’re chasing, only made it that much more important. But for Nurkic, it was bigger than just that as he made his way back from the devastating injury in which he suffered compound fractures to the tibia and fibula of his lower left leg.

“I’m just glad we won the damn game, man,” Nurkic said. “I’ve been preparing for this moment for the last 16 months.”

But even with that, and the concern for his grandmother’s condition, Nurkic tried to keep the focus on the floor.

“It’s family, man. Obviously the court is the safest place for me. I’ve been through a lot in my life and it’s not going to change my mindset, it’ll be the same on the floor,” he said. “We’ve got to deal with all that different stuff in our life and still be there. The team is counting on me.”

Nurkic started his postgame availability wanting to talk about the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and encourage everyone to take precautions to stem the spread of the virus.

“I’m not trying to get attention with all this, or this is just for me, I’m just sure that people can save lives,” he said. “This little thing, if you wear a mask and visit your grandfather or grandma, if you’ve been around someone, don’t go in there. Be smart, man. Don’t take this for granted.

“People don’t understand how serious this s— is,” he said. “We would not be here in the bubble if this thing is not real.”

Nurkic was a key part of a momentum shift in the fourth quarter, finishing a soaring dunk and letting out a visceral roar on his way back down the floor.

“He’s one of my closest friends, so of course I was there for him and we had that conversation and the fact he’s still been able to show up and get his work done, be present at practice and come out and have the kind of game he had that just shows how much it means to him,” Portland guard Damian Lillard said. “With everything he has going with his family at home and then him being here in the bubble and not have played in 16 months, but he still came out here and had this type of performance despite everything that’s weighing him down, I think that makes it more impressive.”

In a highly competitive, intense game, Carmelo Anthony drilled crucial back-to-back 3s in the final minutes of regulation and McCollum took over in the extra frame to pull the Blazers a game closer to Memphis. There was a flurry of technical fouls in the second half, with Memphis’ Brandon Clarke and Portland’s McCollum and Zach Collins all getting whistled for taunting.

“I think they’ve got to do a better job of balancing that,” McCollum said of the officiating in an environment with no fans. “There are no fans, but we’re all competitive people. I got a technical and I didn’t say anything. But we’ve got to be smarter, we’ve got to react better I guess and try to contain our emotions.”

Said Lillard: “I think because there was no fans and there’s not a lot of noise, that’s gonna distract the referees from what’s right in front of them. The whistle was a little bit more hot. They didn’t give us much leash when guys were celebrating or maybe say a word or two to somebody, it was like, quick. You saw techs came left and right. But maybe that’s they’re coming out to try to control the action or control the back and forth, but hopefully it eases up.”

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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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