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NBA playoffs – From afar, watching Lakers-Nuggets Game 3 with the ‘Serbian Barkley’

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Just four minutes and 38 seconds into the second quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic retreated to his team’s bench having committed his third foul of the game. That’s when the team knew its 7-foot passing savant was in trouble.

More than 5,000 miles away, Dejan Milojevic, Jokic’s beloved Serbian coach, had already concluded that — well in advance of the referee’s whistle. Milojevic had tracked his former pupil carefully on his big-screen television as he went through pregame warm-ups, and noted, with some dismay, that the big man’s mannerisms were uncharacteristically jittery.

“He was nervous,” Milojevic said. “That’s why he had so many fouls. I watched that happen and thought, ‘I hope no matter what is going wrong on the court, he will stay calm.'”

But Jokic’s apprehension was palpable from the Serbian coach’s living room.

“I know his face,” his coach replied. “I can tell what he is thinking. I watched these guys several hours a day for many, many years. When I see that look, I know what it means.”

It meant a Game 1 drubbing in which Jokic logged just 25 foul-plagued minutes, followed by a heartbreaking Game 2 loss where Anthony Davis snuffed the Nuggets’ upset intentions with a clutch jumper at the buzzer. While there was much hand-wringing over the miscommunication that gave Davis a clean look, Denver’s woeful box-out skills and the missed free throws, Milojevic was buoyed by what was trending in those final minutes.

Jokic scored the final 11 points of the game for his team, and, if not for Davis’ game-winner, the unorthodox center would have been the cause celebre du jour of the bubble.

“I know people are mad they lost,” Milojevic said, “but they proved they can play with these Lakers. Their defense was excellent. They should have much confidence.”

Milojevic coached Jokic from 2012 to ’15 in Belgrade for Mega Basket (now Mega Soccerbet), and was a major influence in honing the center’s skills so he could fulfill his NBA dream. Though the coach felt certain Jokic had the talent to succeed, there were many who were skeptical he possessed the personal discipline to make it. “I heard too much of, ‘No, Jokic, he can’t do it,'” Milojevic said. “They said, ‘Look at him.’ I did — and I saw someone special.”

Serbia’s celebrated coach spoke to this ESPN reporter on Tuesday, but because Serbia is six hours ahead of Orlando, Florida, (Game 3 started at 3 a.m. in Jokic’s homeland), Milojevic received special dispensation to skip in-game analysis. He attempted to stay up earlier in the playoffs, but when halftime hit around 4:30 am, Milojevic said he would inevitably nod off during the break. Now he goes to bed at a normal hour and watches first thing in the morning without knowing the results, free of commercials and lengthy coaches challenges.

Like Jokic, Milojevic was once a Serbian center, a rugged undersized big man whose deft skills and tenacity on the glass earned him the nickname “The Serbian Barkley.” He was a sturdy player who lifted weights in his kitchen. He was not adverse to mixing it up on the court should the need for a physical presence be required. “I only started fighting if I was defending someone else,” he insisted.

Milojevic had been known for his exceptional footwork, a skill that he passed along to Jokic. “I showed him some things,” his coach said, “and after a week he had already passed me in ability.”

Jokic’s unusual skill set is a testament to his creativity. Yet Tim Connelly, Denver’s head of basketball operations, insists Milojevic’s fingerprints are all over Jokic’s game.

“I’ve spent so much time in countless gyms all over the world, but Dejan quickly jumps out as completely different,” Connelly said. “He’s not teaching Nikola to ‘dribble, dribble, to the left shoulder.’ It’s ‘dribble, dribble, and reach under the elbow to shoot with the left hand.’ There’s no cookie-cutter learning. He’s teaching his guys to become unique players.”

Jokic exhibited patience on the court from the time he picked up the basketball and preferred to share the ball rather than dominate it. He was never a chiseled specimen, and Milojevic discovered he could easily become disengaged during conditioning unless there was something at stake.

“Our conditioning drills all had winners and losers,” Milojevic said. “I made them as competitive as possible. I got Nikola’s best effort when I did it that way.

“People always talk about Nikola and whether he’s in good shape. I say, ‘It depends on what you call good shape.’ Nikola is much stronger than people think. His body frame is…you see what you see. People look at him like he’s chubby, like he’s some fat guy that is not able to run. But that is not so. If you think that, he will beat you.”

While Milojevic confesses he had no idea that Jokic would develop into an All-NBA talent, he always believed he had a chance because of the willingness to try nearly anything on the basketball court. Naturally, that came with some bouts of indigestion. Early in his career, Jokic threw no-look cross-court bullets, tried to thread the needle with nearly impossible, bounce passes, complete with backspin. His pass offerings came from between the legs, behind the back — even backwards over his head — a marvelous version of which was unveiled in the Game 7 win over the Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals.

Shortly after the Nuggets drafted Jokic, Connelly expressed his disappointment to the big man that he was being so conservative. “I told Nikola that I was so transfixed by passing,” Connelly recalled. “I said, ‘So why are you just reversing the ball like everyone else?’ He said, ‘In Mega, I throw the ball off my head and I still play. Here, it’s a turnover and I sit.'”

That early approach, confirms Milojevic, was completely accurate. “He made a lot of mistakes when he was younger,” he said. “I had to swallow a lot of things. He was throwing all these ridiculous passes — and it drove me crazy.

“But I saw something wonderful, so I didn’t want to focus his mind on mistakes. I let these things go so he could grow and learn from them.

“And now he stands out. There are many great players in the NBA league — superstars — but not many are making their teammates better. That’s all that Nikola ever wanted. He enjoys passing more than scoring. That’s what separates him — the creativity. That’s why when he was throwing the ball all over the place, I did not tell him ‘No!’ Not many players can do what he does. So why stop the guy?”

Jokic’s offensive capabilities include floaters, which he utilized to score Denver’s opening basket in Game 3, post-ups, even a one-legged fall-away shuffle (often off the wrong foot), like the one he sank over Anthony Davis in the final minute of the first half, which helped Denver stake a 63-53 lead.

Lately, Jokic has also dropped some accurate and lethal 3-point bombs. He’s shooting nearly 12% better in these 2020 playoffs (42.9) from 3 than during the regular season (31.4). His pick-and-roll actions with teammate Jamal Murray are pure basketball poetry.

“He’s very difficult to guard because he plays in a different way at a different speed,” Milojevic explained. “He shoots from the ground, which means the defense doesn’t have time to react. People see him and say, ‘He can’t jump.’ But what they should be saying is, ‘Look at that. When you play with two feet on the ground, you can release the ball more quickly and the defense doesn’t have time to react.'”

Milojevic is watching all the NBA playoff games closely, as he hopes to join their coaching ranks there now that his son Nikola (not named after Jokic, who was 7 years old when Milojevic’s son was born) has finished high school and aspires to play college ball in America. Milojevic enjoyed a 2018 summer league stint with the Houston Rockets and has garnered great respect throughout the league.

“In normal times he’d be snapped up right away,” Connelly said, “but with the pandemic, there are unique challenges in terms of travel and finances.”

While he contemplates his next move, Milojevic texts regularly with Jokic after, and sometimes before, each game. During the pandemic, Jokic attended a party in Serbia celebrating the career of Milojevic, who had announced a year earlier he would step down from Mega in 2020. It was there that Jokic contracted Covid. His coach tested negative, but still carries a smidge of guilt that others were infected during an evening to toast his success.

Jokic, who was asymptomatic, is in prime playoff form, anxious to put a win on the ledger for the Nuggets. The nerves, reports his old coach, have evaporated. Before he went to sleep, Milojevic predicted a Game 3 Nuggets victory. The key, he said, was for Jokic to continue to be unpredictable in where the ball was going — and to whom.

As Jokic’s mentor predicted, Denver prevailed 114-106 — clutch shooting by Murray and a career night from Jerami Grant (26 points) held off a furious fourth-quarter rally by the Lakers. Jokic did his part, chipping in 22 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Milojevic believes the best is yet to come.

“He’s the best passer I’ve ever seen,” Milojevic declared, “so of course I am proud. Yes, we showed him drills to improve his vision, but you cannot practice the things he does. They are different, like him.”

MORE: MacMullan watching playoff basketball from afar:
Nuggets-Jazz Game 1 with John Collins
Lakers-Blazers Game 4 with Trevor Ariza
Bucks-Heat Game 2 with Milwaukee owner Marc Lasry
Raptors-Celtics Game 5 with Danny Ainge

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Sources — Houston Rockets, Washington Wizards agree to Russell Westbrook-John Wall deal

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The Houston Rockets have agreed to trade Russell Westbrook to the Washington Wizards for John Wall and a first-round draft pick, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

The pick is a 2023 first-rounder protected 1-14, sources said. If it doesn’t convey to Houston, it converts to a 2024 pick protected 1-12, then 2025 protected 1-10 and 2026 protected 1-8. At that point, if it still hasn’t conveyed, Houston will get a second-round pick in 2026 and 2027.

Westbrook, as well as fellow Rockets star James Harden, had expressed concern about the direction of the Houston franchise in the wake of the departures of coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey, sources previously told ESPN.

The Rockets and Wizards had previously discussed a Westbrook-for-Wall deal, but Houston wanted assets in addition to Wall, a source said at the time, which it will get with the first-round pick.

Wall, who is coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon, has not played since Dec. 26, 2018, but Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard said last week that the former All-Star had his quickness back and an improved 3-point shot.

The move will reunite Westbrook with Wizards coach Scott Brooks after the two were together in Oklahoma City from 2008-09 to 2014-15.

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LA Clippers’ Paul George says lack of adjustments hurt team in playoffs

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Paul George said the LA Clippers failed to make any adjustments during their stunning playoff meltdown when they blew a 3-1 second-round series lead to the Denver Nuggets.

Appearing on the “All The Smoke” podcast with Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes, a candid George talked about the Clippers’ failure to do anything to stop the bleeding once Denver began its comeback, saying they were “having the same s— happen over and over again.”

As Doc Rivers oversaw a blown 3-1 series lead for the second time during his Clippers tenure, George said the team was not prepared enough. He also said that a lack of practice time due to injuries and circumstances during the season also exacerbated the collapse as players were forced to try to iron out issues on the court during playoff games.

“It was tough because we were confident,” George told Jackson and Barnes when asked about the Clippers’ collapse. “We went up 3-1, we felt like, we’re going to win the next one. We lost. We [were] like cool, we’re up 3-2, we gonna win the next one. We lost. But during that whole process, we never worked on adjustments. We never worked on what to do differently. We just literally having the same s— happen over and over again. It started to play a trick on you like man, what’s going on?

“We are talking amongst each other like the conversation is, we are going to be all right. The conversation should have been like, nah, we need to change this, we need to switch this up. I don’t think we deserved it. We wasn’t prepared enough going into it. … We didn’t put the work into it. It was kind of just like, yo, we got PG, we got Kawhi [Leonard], Lou [Williams], Trezz (Montrezl Harrell). We going to be straight, we are going to figure it out.”

The Clippers lost three straight games to the Nuggets, falling short of the championship expectations they entered the season with. That led to the team parting ways with Rivers, who couldn’t get the Clippers on the same page during a season full of injuries, little practice time and constant disruptions.

George, who missed the first 11 games of the regular season before returning and averaging 21.5 points and 5.7 rebounds, said his first season with the Clippers got off to a difficult start because of his inability to train like he normally does during the summer of 2019 and inability to participate in training camp with his new team after shoulder surgeries.

“I missed that time in the summer of playing pickup ball, hooping, getting into a rhythm, getting into a flow, working on my game, the timing right,” he said. “So when I came back and started playing again, I just felt off, like I didn’t feel like a part of the team.

George also said that head coach Doc Rivers didn’t play to his strengths, saying he was utilized “like a Ray Allen or like a JJ Redick — all pindowns.”

“I can do it. But that ain’t my game,” he said. “I need some flow. I need some mixes of pick and rolls, I need some post-ups. Just different touches. … And so, it was just, that last season was just hard overall.”

The Clippers are banking on Ty Lue, who replaces Rivers and moves up from his lead assistant position last season, to improve the team’s in-game strategy and chemistry among Leonard, George and the Clippers’ role players. Lue said a major difference this season that should help the chemistry is having Leonard and George healthy and participating in training camp.

“Just as far as me talking to Kawhi, he is excited to get back on the court,” Lue said on Wednesday. “When you are dealing with great players, when you lose early on in the playoffs, you are always eager to get back. That is what great players do. We all failed at our goal last season and we all know that.

“Kawhi has done a great job of taking [initiative] to get guys on the phone, talking to guys, seeing guys more,” Lue added. “He has done a great job of that. He is excited to get back on the floor just from talking to him and we are all excited as well.”

Lue is no stranger to dealing with superstars and trying to hold them accountable. He won two championships as a player alongside Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal and another title as a coach while guiding LeBron James in Cleveland.

Lue and George have said the Clippers need a lot more time together on the floor in practices. George said that was a major reason why the Clippers were often not on the same page and could be seen barking at one another at times during the playoffs.

“I relate it to we didn’t practice during the whole year, and that is hard to do when you are putting a fresh new group of guys together,” George said. “The problems you have during games, those s— can be ironed out in practice. You are going to bump heads in practice, but you are going to come out of that practice like, OK I understand this dude, I know where he is coming from. When it happened during games, it is going to rub a little differently.

“It is hard to come back from that, especially in the playoffs. Then you are like, OK, that is what he’s on. So all right, I got you. That is kind of how the team, that is how we was and how we went about it after stuff started unfolding and unraveling.”

The Clippers return to camp this week a different team with Rivers gone to Philadelphia, Harrell signing with the Lakers and JaMychal Green joining the Nuggets. They added Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard via free agency and trade.

George says this season will get off to a different start just because he and Leonard will be healthier and can work with the entire team.

“I think for this year, everybody is starting off on a healthy page, we are starting off on the same page,” George said. “Me and Kawhi are going to get some time together working out. I think everything is just not rushed going into the season.”

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NBA says 48 positive for COVID-19 in initial reentry testing

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The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association jointly announced Wednesday night that there were 48 positive tests for COVID-19 out of the 546 players tested from Nov. 24 to Nov. 30.

This was the initial round of tests for players as they returned to their teams’ markets ahead of the start of individual workouts Tuesday. The regular season is scheduled to start Dec. 22.

The NBA will be testing all of its players daily throughout the season.

While the league’s positive test rate of 8.8% in its initial testing is lower than the national average of 10.2% over the same time frame, it also is significantly higher than the 5.3% rate (16 out of 302) during the same return-to-market period in late June before play at the bubble in Orlando, Florida.

In total, 46 players tested positive for the coronavirus in the weeks leading up to and upon initially arriving at the bubble. After the bubble was formed, the league had no positive tests through the end of the season in mid-October.

As for this season, one team, the Golden State Warriors, delayed the beginning of its individual workouts by a day this week because of positive tests.

As the league detailed in its 139-page health and safety protocols released to teams over the weekend, a player will have to refrain from workouts for 10 days if he tests positive and remains asymptomatic — or 10 days from the end of his symptoms, if he has any. After that, a player will then have to spend two days working out individually, as well as have to pass a cardiac screening, before being allowed to resume full team activities.

That would make it a minimum 12 days from the time a player tested positive until he was able to resume full participation with teammates.

The NBA’s first preseason games are Dec. 11 — or fewer than 12 days from the end of the first testing window.

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