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Kyrie Irving rejoins Brooklyn Nets, says he ‘just needed a pause’

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NEW YORK — Kyrie Irving rejoined the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday after two weeks away from the team.

“I’m back, I’m happy to be back,” Irving told reporters. “And we got some great pieces and we just move on and I let my actions and my game speak for itself like I planned on doing. Just needed a pause.”

Irving practiced with the team on Tuesday and coach Steve Nash said that he “expects” Irving will play on Wednesday against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Irving had missed the team’s last seven games — five for personal reasons and two while conditioning.

Irving said that he “had a lot of family and personal stuff going on. So, just want to leave it at that.”

During the time away for personal reasons, the league fined Irving for violating health and safety protocols and attending what appeared to be a family birthday party. He also lost more than $800,000 in salary for the two games he missed while in quarantine.

Irving declined to answer whether or not he knew he was violating the league’s coronavirus safety rules saying, “Happy to be back. Thank you.”

The last game Irving played in for Brooklyn was on Jan. 5. The next day, a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol. Irving said on Tuesday that he has to make a “separation” between current political and societal events in the United States and playing in the NBA.

“If you don’t create that distinction,” Irving said, “Then it’s easy to feel the weight of the world while you’re going out there and playing. So, I’d be lying sitting here and saying I don’t feel what’s going on in the world, nor am I paying attention to it. I just have a huge responsibility, I feel, to continue to serve my community and the underserved. And when I’m out here playing, it’s continuing to leave knowledge with these guys and commit to something, like I always say, bigger than ourselves.”

Irving apologized to fans who may have been frustrated or disappointed by his absence, saying that he understood their perspective because “I started off as a fanatic, I’ve been invested in this organization since I was a kid.”

“My commitment has always to bringing something special to Brooklyn,” Irving said. “It wasn’t just a championship. It was unity, equality, just bigger things than just the game itself. It took quite a while and quite a few valleys to get back home, initially. So for me, I’m just taking every day, just being grateful.”

Irving said that he addressed his teammates and the organization individually.

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NBA announces All-Star Game plans with contributions going to HBCUs and COVID-19 relief

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The NBA officially announced Thursday that it will be holding the All-Star Game on March 7 in Atlanta and will partner with the NBPA to give more than $2.5 million to HBCUs as well as to support awareness around equity and access to COVID-19 care, relief and vaccines.

Due to COVID-19, what typically is an entire weekend’s worth of festivities will be compressed into a single night. Rather than holding the skills challenge, 3-point contest and slam dunk contest on Saturday night, as it typically does, the NBA will instead have the skills challenge and 3-point contest take place before the game starts at 8 p.m. and will hold the slam dunk contest at halftime.

Meanwhile, the “Elam Ending” will officially return after a successful debut last year in Chicago. Each quarter, like last year, will start at 0-0, with both teams competing to win each quarter for designated charities. The fourth quarter will then be played until either team reaches the point total of the leading team after three quarters plus 24 points — in honor of the late Kobe Bryant. In addition, as ESPN reported Wednesday, captains — determined by the highest vote getters in each conference – will once again be choosing their respective teams from the pool of 22 remaining All-Stars.

Each participating player will be allowed to bring up to four family members, “longtime close personal friends” or their agent. They’ll also be allowed to bring one “health-focused staff member,” who may work for their team, to help them prepare to play in Sunday’s events.

“NBA All-Star in Atlanta will continue our annual tradition of celebrating the game and the greatest players in the world before a global audience. In addition to the festivities on the court, the All-Star Game will honor the vital role HBCUs play in our communities and focus attention and resources on COVID-19 relief, particularly for the most vulnerable,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in the league’s statement announcing the game would take place.

“HBCUs provided premium education to our communities at a time when access to higher learning was denied to us,” NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts said in the statement. “They were there — and have remained there — for us. We now stand with them.”

In attempts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the NBA will require players to self-quarantine at home “with limited exceptions” from Feb. 27 until they leave for Atlanta on March 6, and will be required to stay at the All-Star hotel while in Atlanta outside of when they are participating in All-Star events at the arena, part of what the NBA is deeming a “mini bubble” in Atlanta. Players and their guests will receive private transportation to and from the game in addition to regular PCR testing. Player guests will also undergo regular PCR testing up to and including their time in Atlanta, and they’ll also be allowed to attend the game itself.

“As a founding partner of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the NBA has been a consistent supporter for more than 33 years,” Thurgood Marshall College Fund President and CEO Dr. Harry L. Williams said in the statement. By dedicating its All-Star platform to supporting Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the NBA is making a profound statement about the league’s commitment to a better future, recognizing the crucial role Black Colleges have always played in facilitating racial equity and serving the African American community.”

The NBA will announce the All-Star starters, along with both captains, Thursday night on TNT, after being voted on by the fans (making up 50 percent of the voting), players (25 percent) and media (25 percent). The league’s coaches will then vote on the seven reserve spots in each conference, which will be announced next Tuesday.

Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder has already clinched coaching one of the teams in the All-Star Game. Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers will clinch coaching the other if either the Sixers win one of their next two games, or the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets lose again this week.

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Locked-in Portland Trail Blazers win behind Damian Lillard’s key basket

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NEW ORLEANS — Another night, another clutch performance from Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard.

Sure, this one featured another game-sealing bucket from Lillard — his 25th game-tying or go-ahead field goal in the final 20 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime, most in the NBA since he entered the league in 2012-13 — but the 126-124 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday and the recent stretch of success for the Blazers is about more than just Lillard’s individual success.

With CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins all missing time, the Blazers’ six-game win streak, and eighth win in nine games, is a “collective effort.”

“I think the beauty in what we’re doing right now and why it’s been so fun and so special, like last season, I had a run where for 10 games I was scoring like 48 a game, and then the bubble I was scoring 48, 50, 60, just having big performances but we weren’t playing that great,” Lillard said.

“We weren’t getting stops. We weren’t moving the ball. It wasn’t as collective as it is right now. … Everybody is coming in and doing their job. I’m not just saying that to give people credit. It looks the way it does because everybody is coming in and doing their job. Without CJ, Nurk and Zach, we don’t win these games if it’s not collective the way it’s been.”

Lillard called out each Blazers rotational player by name when discussing how “fun” the team is having this time around. But, of course, it doesn’t hurt when your superstar goes for 43 points and ties his career high with 16 assists, either.

Despite New Orleans’ scoring output, Lillard says he can see the defense for the Blazers — ranked 28th in defensive efficiency after Wednesday’s games — starting to turn around.

“I think lately we’re just locked into it,” Lillard said. “We’re a lot sharper for longer periods of times. Teams go on runs, it happens, we’ll have a lapse here like every team does. Tonight, I thought we played really hard and physical and smart defensively and they had 124 points. I just think our urgency is up. We’re communicating. We’re taking a challenge. Every guy is committing to playing defense and giving that effort.”

Portland coach Terry Stotts said he thinks the team has improved defensively going back to a win against Philadelphia on Feb. 4. In the past eight games, the Blazers have the 13th-ranked defensive in the league.

“The numbers don’t favor us, but we’ve always had the effort,” Lillard added. “I said that earlier in the season. We just always haven’t been on the same page communication-wise.”

Communication was key for Portland down the stretch Wednesday, especially as the Pelicans had a chance to tie or send the game into overtime on the final possession.

After Lillard’s and-1 put the Blazers up by two with 16.5 seconds to go, it was obvious the Pelicans were going to try to get the ball into the hands of either Zion Williamson or Brandon Ingram.

“We scouted some of their end-of-games plays and they kind of mix it up, like the previous play they went to Zion,” Stotts said. “You knew it was going to be in one of their two hands.”

The Pelicans inbounded the ball to Josh Hart, who flipped it to Ingram. Williamson went up to set a screen for Ingram but their defenders switched, putting Derrick Jones Jr. on Williamson and Robert Covington on Ingram.

Covington bodied Ingram on the drive, forcing a pass out to Lonzo Ball for a deep 3. Hart tipped the ball back out and it found its way to Ingram in the corner. Ingram took a dribble in and put up a contested 14-footer against Carmelo Anthony that didn’t fall as Portland secured the win. A team win — using defense, that is.

“I think it’s a big win for us, but I don’t think it’s the biggest win for us this season. We played well defensively and we played well offensively. We just had to lock in a little bit more on the defensive end and that’s what we did, and I’m glad we did,” Jones said. “We’re going to keep learning off this win and get back at it.

“Just going into this road trip, we had the mindset of keeping our streak going, and we are going to keep it going. We’re just going to go out there every day and play the right way. We know how we should play and we just have to go out there every day and play the right way. As long as we’re doing that, the sky is the limit for us.”

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Trae Young, Zion Williamson among those making NBA All-Star statements

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The NBA will announce the starters for the 2021 All-Star Game on Thursday, and there has been plenty of debate about who should be on its rosters. But Wednesday night, some of the league’s up-and-coming stars took to the court to make their case for a spot in the big game.

Here’s a look at how some of those players fared:

What he did

With Atlanta having lost seven of eight entering Wednesday night’s game in Boston — including several that were decided late in the fourth quarter — the Hawks desperately needed to grab hold of, and win, a game they led by nine entering the fourth against the Celtics. Trae Young made sure there wouldn’t be another repeat of those past issues down the stretch in this one, scoring 16 of his 40 points to ensure Atlanta’s victory, 122-114.

Young tallied 12 straight points for Atlanta in the middle of the fourth quarter, including on two drives that resulted in layups — one on which Boston committed goaltending — that pushed Atlanta’s lead back out to 10 points after the Celtics had cut it to six. With Marcus Smart, Boston’s lone quality point guard defender, sitting out due to a calf injury, Young got wherever he wanted throughout the contest, wreaking havoc on Boston’s defense.

What they said

“That’s what we’ve been talking about with Trae,” Hawks assistant coach Nate McMillan said. “He has to show that growth of managing a game, whether we’re up or down in the fourth quarter. We talked about his turnovers, and I thought he did a good job tonight, when we didn’t have anything early, getting us organized and executing down the stretch. Taking what the defense gave him. I didn’t realize he had 40 points, but he just did a good job of managing the offense, as well as the defense. I thought he established a tempo we wanted and did a good job of executing down the stretch.” — Tim Bontemps


What he did

On a night when no one else for the Celtics had it going, Jayson Tatum single-handedly kept Boston in the game, finishing with 35 points on 11-for-21 shooting and 10-for-11 from the foul line to go along with six rebounds and six assists in 35 minutes. Tatum needed an effort like this, as his play had slumped recently. He had said before Tuesday’s win against the visiting Denver Nuggets that he was still feeling the aftereffects of testing positive for COVID-19 last month.

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Jayson Tatum uses a step-back move to hit a tough 3-point shot along the sideline with the defender hovering in the area.

With Kemba Walker sitting out the second half of a back-to-back and Marcus Smart out with a calf strain, Boston was really down to just Tatum and Jaylen Brown as far as players who can either create their own shot or ones for others. That imbalance has been a problem for Boston all season long and part of the reason the Celtics are now 14-14 on the season — despite Tatum and Brown likely headed for All-Star berths — after losing to Atlanta.

What he said

“Anything worth achieving doesn’t come easy,” Tatum said. “We’re 14-14. It hasn’t been easy. But we believe, we believe in each other, we believe in ourselves, and we’re going to figure it out.” — Tim Bontemps


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Zion Williamson gets the ball and finishes at the rim with a big dunk.

What he did

Wednesday’s performance from the New Orleans Pelicans‘ Zion Williamson was another case of the 20-year-old becoming more and more comfortable as his burgeoning career takes shape. Williamson tied his career high with 36 points and added six boards and four assists against Portland, a 126-124 loss to Damian Lillard and the visiting Trail Blazers. Williamson was 12-of-18 from the field and 11-of-15 from the foul line.

In his past nine games, Williamson is averaging 28.1 points on 69.3% shooting from the field and 78.9% from the foul line to go with 5.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists. His playmaking is evolving — the Pelicans are 6-0 this season when he has at least five assists — and his outside game is taking a step forward, as well, as he has hit at least one 3-pointer in five of his past 11 contests.

What he said

“My teammates trust me to go out there and make the best play for them,” Williamson said. “We put ourselves in a great position to win the game. Me being in that position, I’m always ready. When my name is called, I’m always gonna be ready. I never wanna let my teammates down. Tonight, it doesn’t always work that way. But it’s these moments that’s gonna drive us to be better.” — Andrew Lopez


What he did

In what has been a breakout season, Zach LaVine scored 37 points on 14-of-22 shooting, including 4-of-6 from 3-point range, on Wednesday. More importantly, he keyed a huge comeback that led to a Bulls win over the visiting Pistons. LaVine posted 15 points in the third quarter to help Chicago come back from a 25-point, second-quarter deficit. Chicago outscored Detroit 27-12 in the third quarter and went on to prevail 105-102.

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Zach LaVine throws down dunk after dunk vs. the Pistons.

At 28.5 points per game, LaVine is averaging nearly three points more than his previous career high, as he has taken his offensive game to a new level. Overall, he is shooting 52% from the field and 43.7% from beyond the arc, both career bests by a healthy margin.

What he said

“The most enjoyable part of the comeback was us being more competitive and aggressive,” LaVine said. “I think we played with some, not desperation, but we knew we couldn’t make a lot of mistakes. And we needed to go out there in the third quarter and play the right way from the get-go or we weren’t going to have a chance to win.”



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