For the Blazers, the goal is to build upon the momentum they carried over from their stunning 140-135 overtime victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday. That victory was a massive one for Portland; not only did the Blazers manage to overcome an 11-point, second-half deficit to win their first game at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, but it also allowed Portland to move to within 2½ games of Memphis for the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference.
“Everybody knew how important that game was,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said afterward. “This is playoff basketball from us, and we have that pressure and you can’t shy away from it.”
For Portland to make the playoffs, it will need to both remain in ninth place and within four games of Memphis for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West to enter into the first play-in tournament, something the NBA instituted as part of its return to play inside the campus.
Finding a way to get another win over the Celtics would go a long way toward securing either option. To do so, they’ll need to continue to see the kind of game they got from Damian Lillard, who had 29 points and nine assists in 45 minutes after missing Portland’s final two scrimmages because of inflammation in his left foot.
Speaking of injured point guards, the Celtics couldn’t care less about playoff positioning during these seeding games. Instead, the singular focus for Boston between now and when the playoffs start later this month is to get Kemba Walker back to full strength.
Though Boston lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in their first game in Florida on Friday night, what they saw from Walker in that game made the night a success. Walker played only 19 minutes, as part of a carefully mapped out build-up plan during these seeding games as he tries to ease his balky left knee back to normal. But he scored 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting from the field, playing with precisely the kind of burst Boston will need from him if the Celtics want to beat Milwaukee in a potential third straight showdown in the playoffs.
“It felt pretty normal,” Walker said. “It felt very normal. It felt good.”
No matter the result, if the Celtics hear Walker say the same thing after this game, they’ll be happy. — Tim Bontemps
Sunday’s must-see games
The Trail Blazers got off to exactly the kind of start they needed, taking down the Grizzlies in the opener to close the gap, because things start to get tougher from here. The Celtics played the Bucks to the wire, getting a terrific game from Marcus Smart and looking every bit prepared, conditioned and ready. The Trail Blazers are definitely a better team today than they were in March. They’re going to need to show it against Boston. — Royce Young
There’s a decent chance the Bucks might drop 190 points on Houston. But then again, the Rockets might return the favor, because the microball is still cooking. James Harden didn’t show any signs of rust, and for the most part, Houston just continued on with what it was doing in March. If anything, the restart might have given the Rockets more of a chance to work out some issues, and a showdown against the Bucks is a great chance to try it out in a rematch of both teams’ season opener.— Young
In contrast to Saturday, Sunday’s games are almost exclusively bubble-flavored. Only the Bucks-Rockets matchup is free from seeding drama (a Bucks win clinches the top seed in the East for Milwaukee).
The day starts off with the Washington Wizards getting a crack at the current 8-seed, the Brooklyn Nets. Both teams are in dilapidated roster states, and it showed in their respective opening losses Friday. The Orlando Magic beat the Nets to take hold of the 7-seed; they’ll look to put some distance between themselves and Brooklyn when they play the Sacramento Kings, who need to bounce back from Friday’s demoralizing loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs will look to continue the momentum from that win by taking on Southeast Division rival and current West 8-seed Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday. The Grizzlies are the hunted, and they’re already reeling from Friday’s overtime loss to the Portland Trail Blazers; the Rip City outlet needs a win over the Celtics and/or some help to maintain their hold on the 9-seed.
8. Memphis Grizzlies | 32-34 (.485) | —
9. Portland Trail Blazers | 30-37 (.448) | 2.5 GB
10. San Antonio Spurs | 28-36 (.438) | 3.0 GB
11. Sacramento Kings | 28-37 (.431) | 3.5 GB
12. New Orleans Pelicans | 28-38 (.424) | 4.0 GB
13. Phoenix Suns | 27-39 (.409) | 5 GB
Analysis and intel
The restart games have already changed the play-in and playoff odds in the East and West.
How Carmelo Anthony, Nikola Jokic and other athletes changed their look during the coronavirus shutdown
Some professional athletes have become even more fit while staying home this spring and summer. What nerve.
The NBA returned on Thursday, the MLB last week — and, as sports slowly come back, our eyes are on these players’ new, post-lockdown looks:
The Portland Trail Blazers player is now dubbed “Skinny Melo” after arriving in Orlando looking noticeably slimmer. He had been starting at power forward for Portland, but with the return of big men Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, he’s preparing to return to small forward.
“For me, I had that in the back of my mind, once Coach told me the position, that I’d be switching back to the 3,” Anthony said. “I kind of challenged myself to get down to that weight where I feel comfortable with playing the 3, comfortable running around and utilizing things I can do within our system from playing the 3.
Skinny Melo still doing work in the paint 💪 pic.twitter.com/beaXImRSCe
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) July 26, 2020
The veteran Raptors center focused on his fitness during the break in an effort to play to his full potential now that a nagging hamstring injury has finally healed.
Marc Gasol has lost some serious weight😳 pic.twitter.com/iKFddDKdaV
— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) June 20, 2020
“It was a frustrating season for me personally because I could never get a rhythm and help the team the way that I should be helping the team,” Gasol said earlier this month. “As soon as … we got informed the [Toronto training] facility was closing down, I got together with my team on a phone call and got going on a plan to resolve these ongoing issues.”
Harden was already a scoring machine ahead of the NBA lockdown, and now the Houston Rockets star looks fitter than ever.
Focused On Staying Ready 😤
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) May 28, 2020
The 2018 NBA MVP told The Athletic in May: “I’ve been doing a lot of cardio. I’ve got treadmills in my houses, weights and all that good stuff. It really hasn’t affected me like it’s affected a lot of other players.”
The first picture of the Denver Nuggets center since the break was shocking. Are we sure that is Nikola Jokic?!
👀 JOKIC! pic.twitter.com/NNsyW4HHRE
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) June 11, 2020
“He sent me a picture. No shirt on. He’s got abs. I’ve never seen him have abs before,” Nuggets president Tim Connelly said recently. Are the Nuggets ready to make a run for the title in the bubble?
The New Orleans Pelicans rookie clearly put in work in the downtime. And we are ready to see the show.
“Zion used the time off to shed 25 pounds of pure fat and put on 10 pounds of lean, explosive, dynamic muscle” pic.twitter.com/s8NaNtIas0
— Mark Titus (@clubtrillion) July 2, 2020
“Zion has been diligent about taking care of himself,” David Griffin, the Pelicans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, told ESPN. “He’s in a good space physically and mentally.”
The MLB opened its season last week, and a handful of players have been showing off their new physiques as well:
Now that the regular season has begun, Yankees fans could celebrate that on Wednesday, Voit has been on their team for two years.
Like his teammate, Chapman — a closer for the Yankees — increased his fitness level during the shutdown.
“I definitely wanted to take advantage of that, actually wanted to cut some pounds during quarantine and being at home and training at home,” the 32-year-old said during a Zoom call with reporters in early July. “I was able to do that, I was able to cut some pounds, 10 pounds, and I feel really good right now. I find myself at a great weight for an athlete.”
If you followed his Instagram at all the past few months, it comes as no surprise how shredded he has become.
The Philadelphia Phillies star has always been muscular, but his ridiculous squat workout is putting the rest of the NL on notice.
The former MVP is jacked!
And to round out these new looks, we’ve also appreciated the new hairdos in soccer. Most important, USWNT star Megan Rapinoe revived her iconic pink locks:
While others were looking long — or buzzed:
Buzzing to be back 🤩 pic.twitter.com/xikxrR5Y6X
— Jack Grealish (@JackGrealish) May 20, 2020
Some interesting new haircuts on show! 💇♂️ pic.twitter.com/6BUVumJPbG
— Leicester City (@LCFC) May 20, 2020
Ashley Young has hair now. That’s it. That’s the tweet.
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) May 18, 2020
May we never find the need to take the buzzers into our own hands again.
The evolution of the James Harden-Giannis Antetokounmpo feud
The Houston Rockets‘ official Twitter account took what could be considered the first jab in the beef between two of the NBA’s biggest superstars seconds after Giannis Antetokounmpo was announced as the league’s 2018-19 MVP.
James Harden finished as the runner-up for the third time in five seasons, which didn’t sit right with the Rockets organization. The tweet has since been deleted but was certainly up long enough to send a message.
“Congrats to the MVP, but we respectfully disagree,” the tweet read before rattling off several bullet points making a case that Harden should have been the repeat winner, such as that he was the first player in NBA history to average at least 35 points and seven assists per game for a full season.
It’s common for franchises to lobby for their stars to receive postseason honors. But the timing of this tweet — as first-time winner Antetokounmpo was making his acceptance speech — was perceived by many around the league as poor form, a disrespectful display of sour grapes.
“The Beard” and “The Greek Freak” have exchanged a handful of jabs since, some direct shots, others more subtle.
As Harden’s Rockets prepare to face Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks in the bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Florida (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC), get up to speed on the pokes between the perennial MVP candidates over the past year.
“I went out there and did what I was supposed to do at a high level. There’s only a few other seasons that anybody has ever done that before. People were tuned into how many points I was going to score the next game. It was a thing. But I can’t control that.”
Harden, making an August 2019 appearance on Houston hip hop station 97.9 The Box to promote his annual JH-Town Weekend charity events, readily agreed when one of the hosts declared that “politics” determined the MVP winner.
The implication seems to be that Antetokounmpo wasn’t deserving of the honor, which he won by receiving 78 of the 101 first-place votes, despite a historical stat line (averages of 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.3 steals) to lead the Bucks to the NBA’s best record.
There’s a precedent for the Rockets complaining about the “narrative” determining the MVP winner when Harden finished second in the voting. It also occurred after the 2016-17 award went to Russell Westbrook in the case of the then-Oklahoma City Thunder point guard joining Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to average a triple-double for the season.
Of course, that didn’t prevent the Rockets from pumping up Westbrook as a recent MVP when they pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade to acquire him last summer.
It’s not clear why exactly the narrative would have shifted to favor Harden in 2018-19, when he won the MVP in a landslide, getting 86 of 101 first-place votes. It’s also hard to build a case that the ballot is biased against Harden when he has received more points in MVP voting over the past five years than anyone.
But Harden doubled down in an interview with GQ weeks after his radio appearance when asked if a narrative had been already formed for this season’s MVP race.
“Nah, it hasn’t happened yet, it’s too early,” Harden said. “Wait until the preseason and when the regular season starts up again. But they [the media] for sure got some teams they locked in on. We all know. That’s just what it is.
“You can’t tell me that a guy whose team was a 14-seed at one point last year, and ended up a 4-seed with everything that was going on — so many injuries — and who went on a 32-game 30-point streak, eight 50-point games, two 60-point games in one season … and all the talk was about [Antetokounmpo]?
“There’s no way.”
“It’s me. I can get any shot I want to.”
This was Harden’s explanation for why he struggled in a season-opening home loss to the Bucks, finishing with 19 points on 2-of-13 shooting.
Harden consistently declines to credit the opposing defense for causing him problems after an off night, never wavering in his confidence that he can create his shot regardless of the defenders or schemes that he encounters.
But it’d be understandable if Antetokounmpo — rarely if ever the primary defender on Harden but a dominant force in a help role — and the Bucks believed that their No. 1-ranked defense was due some credit. After all, they held Harden to 23 points on 26 field goal attempts in their previous meeting, a convincing win by the Bucks in late March that might have influenced some MVP ballots.
“I want somebody that’s going to pass the ball.”
“What, you don’t want The Dribbler?” Barkley asked, interrupting when Antetokounmpo said he was deciding between Trae Young and Kemba Walker when Harden was the only other starter available, prompting a chuckle from fellow captain, Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is torn between choosing Kemba Walker or Trae Young, and when Charles Barkley jokingly suggests James Harden, Giannis deals a fun jab during the NBA All-Star draft.
Antetokounmpo chose Walker, a selection that didn’t quite match his stated criteria. Harden averages 2.5 more assists per game than Walker this season. Walker’s career-best assists average was 6.1 per game in 2013-14, and Harden has averaged at least that many dimes in the past seven seasons, including when he won the assists title with 11.2 per game in 2016-17.
Antetokounmpo, for what it’s worth, has never averaged at least six assists in a season.
“Offensively, we were just trying to find whoever James Harden was guarding. That’s who we thought we’d have the opportunity to score on.”
Unlike during the All-Star Game draft, nobody provoked this swipe at Harden. It was Antetokoumpo’s answer to a bland question about his team’s approach down the stretch of the All-Star Game.
That swipe wasn’t exactly supported by the facts. Team Giannis, which had more turnovers (seven) than field goals (5-of-19) in the fourth quarter while blowing a nine-point lead, attempted only two shots in the frame in which Harden was the primary defender. Neither of those shots was good.
Not that simply targeting Harden on defense is a sound strategy. There’s a narrative that Harden is a notoriously poor defender, but the numbers don’t back that up.
Harden has established himself as an elite post defender. According to NBA Advanced Stats, Harden ranks in the 90th percentile this season by giving up only 0.65 points per post-up despite being the league’s most targeted player in those situations (107 possessions). He has graded as an average isolation defender this season, ranking in the 50th percentile by giving up 0.89 points per possession.
“I wish I could just be 7 feet and run and just dunk. Like, that takes no skill at all. I’ve got to actually learn how to play basketball and have skill, you know? I’ll take that any day.”
This was the meat of Harden’s response to Antetokounmpo’s punchline about his passing when ESPN’s Rachel Nichols broached the subject during a 1-on-1 interview at All-Star Weekend.
However, just as Antetokounmpo was off target with his disses of Harden’s game, it’s hard to claim this criticism by Harden is based in reality. It’s rare to find a near-7-footer with such top-level athleticism, though there have been several who have played in the NBA.
Stephen A. Smith agrees with James Harden’s response to Giannis Antetokounmpo saying he wanted to draft a player who passes the ball.
But Antetokounmpo is the only player who fits that description that has thrived as his team’s primary facilitator. Sure, his jump shot is a work in progress. But Antetokounmpo is certainly a skilled ball handler, especially for a player his size.
Has there ever been a player that size who created most of his own dunks off the dribble?
“There hasn’t been a back and forth. I’m not that type of guy. I’ve never tried to take stabs at somebody. Maybe sometimes it might come out like that, but I’m definitely not. … If that’s what [Harden] believes, that’s what he believes.”
Perhaps Antetokounmpo’s skill set includes acting, because these comments in a late February interview with ESPN prove he can certainly play coy.
These came in the wake of Antetokounmpo taking stabs at two subjects that are sensitive to Harden: the perception that the Rockets star is a ball hog and that he’s a dreadful defender. Did Antetokounmpo really expect anyone to believe those were accidental?
“I’ve got to go with James Harden.”
Antetokounmpo paused for several seconds when asked during an Instagram Live Q&A in late March which NBA player was most difficult to guard. After carefully considering it, he replied with the player who is en route to his third consecutive NBA scoring title.
Maybe this virtual olive branch ends the back-and-forth beef between the league’s last two MVPs. Or maybe the Bucks and Rockets’ next meeting could ignite another round inside the bubble.
Dan Le Batard, Bomani Jones, and Domonique Foxworth react to how hard it was for Giannis Antetokounmpo to admit that James Harden is the hardest player he’s had to guard.
Nick Nurse isn’t worried if defending champion Raptors remain overlooked
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Toronto Raptors have spent their entire season as the NBA’s defending champions saying that they feel confident, despite Kawhi Leonard leaving the franchise last summer, that they can win a second consecutive title this season.
So, after winning their opening game inside the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, does Toronto think anyone is listening? Raptors coach Nick Nurse said he isn’t convinced — and isn’t too concerned either way.
“Yeah, maybe,” Nurse said after his Raptors won 107-92 in the final game played Saturday night. “I don’t think anybody’s going to pay much attention, they don’t ever seem to, but it’s OK.
“Seriously man, we love to play the games and we like to compete, we know we’re tough to beat, we really do, and I think there’s a ceiling we can get to yet.”
If there’s a higher ceiling for the Raptors after this one, it will be because Toronto shot just 41.7% overall from the field and committed 14 turnovers.
What it won’t come from is better play on the defensive end. The Raptors were suffocating on that end, holding the Lakers to a dismal 35.4% from the field overall, and to just 25% (10-for-40) from 3-point range.
James led the Lakers with 20 points, but had 5 assists, 4 turnovers and was minus-20 for the game. Forward Anthony Davis, meanwhile, had 14 points and shot just 2-for-7.
“I think I remember one timeout looking down, coming out sometime in the second quarter, and I looked down and I said, ‘Jeez, we’re shooting 30% and we’re winning,'” Nurse said. “And that’s kinda what good defense is supposed to do, get you through some of those moments.”
Getting through those moments is easier when a team’s point guard excels, as All-Star Kyle Lowry did Saturday night, finishing with a line of 33 points, 14 rebounds and 6 assists. He did it all with his usual reckless abandon for his own well-being, too, constantly throwing his body around at both ends of the court.
He also said he was moved by having the ability to protest by kneeling during the national anthems of both the United States and Canada before the game.
“We just want to go play,” said Lowry, one of the players who was most actively involved in talks with NBA commissioner Adam Silver to get the entire bubble project off the ground. “Some guys are down here for different things, our job is to be professional basketball players. But also we want to send [a] message, uplift the Black Americans that’s out there, Black people around the world and that’s our job, to do that.
“That’s what we’re doing, we’re trying to win games and keep our messages and momentum going.”
The Raptors entered the bubble in the same sort of space — as an afterthought in the NBA’s title race — that they have occupied all season. The Lakers, LA Clippers and the Milwaukee Bucks have been hailed as the consensus title favorites, with the Raptors relegated to those in the category of “others receiving votes.” No small part of that calculus is because the Raptors don’t have that one superstar — be it James, Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo — that most title contenders typically do.
But after seeing a team full of championship experience, long, athletic defenders and multiple players capable of scoring 30-plus points in any given game, count one person among those thinking that there is at least one more team that deserves to be part of that championship conversation: James himself.
“That’s a great team,” James said afterward. “No ifs, ands or buts. Exceptionally well coached and championship DNA, you can never take that away from a ballclub if you win a championship. And even before that, they just got playoff-tested guys. Guys that played not only here in the NBA in big games, but also in FIBA games as well. Marc [Gasol] has been in big games throughout his whole life pretty much it seems like.
“So, that’s just a great team. The media may not talk about them much or give them much credit because Kawhi is gone, but players in the league definitely know what type of team they are.”
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