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Washington Wizards, Russell Westbrook fall in return from COVID-19 layoff

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SAN ANTONIO — Russell Westbrook had nine points, eight rebounds and six assists in 25 minutes in his first game in more than two weeks due to a left quadriceps injury.

His return came in the Washington Wizards‘ 121-101 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday night. The Wizards hadn’t played since Jan. 11 after their previous six games were postponed because they did not have enough eligible players due to the league’s COVID-19 protocols.

The Wizards still had six players ineligible, and Washington faded down the stretch as coach Scott Brooks primarily used an eight-man rotation.

Bradley Beal scored 31 points, and Jerome Robinson added 16 points for Washington.

The Wizards made their first three shots, including a pair of 3-pointers. Washington was 14 for 42 overall on 3-pointers, helping it stay with San Antonio through three quarters. But the Spurs outscored the Wizards by 12 points in the fourth.

San Antonio finished 15 for 31 on 3-pointers in securing its largest margin of victory this season. The Spurs remain unbeaten in seven games when they hold a double-digit lead.

The Wizards fell to 3-9 on the season.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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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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Stephen Curry solves shooting slump to seal Golden State Warriors’ OT win

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SAN FRANCISCO — Stephen Curry couldn’t buy a basket.

After spending the first half of the season full of knocking down shots from all over the floor, while re-inserting himself into the MVP conversation, Curry came into the fourth quarter of Wednesday night’s 120-112 overtime win over the Miami Heat having already set a personal record for most three-pointers missed in a game. Curry had already had 47 games in his career where he missed at least 15 threes according to ESPN Stats and Information, but this was the first time he had made just two of them. The rhythm that had defined his season was missing — but as has been the case throughout his career, Curry still found a way to hit the biggest shots of the night when it mattered the most. The star guard’s crucial 28-foot step-back three late in regulation and eight points in overtime helped the Warriors come all the way back from a 19-point deficit and earn arguably their most impressive win of the year.

“That’s why he’s great,” Warriors swingman Andrew Wiggins said. “That’s why he’s one of the greatest players to play the game of basketball. The ability to have a rough first half but come out with that same mindset and take over the ballgame when it needs to be taken over and make big shots after big shots down the stretch. That’s why he is who he is.”

On a night when the Warriors played without emotional leader Draymond Green, who was scratched just minutes before the game because of an ankle injury, and had to overcome the continued absence of James Wiseman (wrist) and Kevon Looney (ankle), it was Curry who repeatedly made the big plays in the biggest moments — even after missing so many shots to start the game.

“I probably took five bad ones,” Curry said. “I’d say, the rest of them were off the dribble in rhythm or catch and shoot wide-open, I just was missing. So knowledge and confidence is huge, and understanding that eventually I’ll find the right rhythm, the right look and make a big one. And thankfully it happened at the end of regulation and then in the two in overtime. I tried not to think of the percentages during the game when you know like ‘Damn, I missed about 17 of these.’ That doubt can sometimes creep in, you got to kick it out and just shoot with confidence and keep shooting.”

With the score tied at 109 with 1:15 left in overtime, it was Curry who drained a 29-foot triple to give his team the lead that it would never give back. With 17 seconds left, it was Curry who delivered the dagger three that left him screaming in celebration as he headed to the bench (and inspired his wife to tweet in celebration).

His ability to shoot terribly but still be able to turn the game around didn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has watched him perform for years.

“This is so typical of Steph,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “He’s just the kind of player and the kind of person who can be in the midst of one of his worst shooting nights of the year and still hit three enormous shots to help us win the game. So really an amazing team win and a lot of fun.”

Curry’s ability to get hot at the right time has been a staple of the Warriors entertaining season and is a huge reason why the organization has confidence that it can win games no matter who else is on the floor. No matter how many he misses, they trust that he will make the one that matters the most.

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With the game tied in the closing seconds, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Kendrick Nunn exchange misses and the game heads to overtime.

“When you’ve got a guy like that that believes in you and instills that confidence in you, you feel like you can do anything,” Warriors guard Kent Bazemore said after scoring 26 points. “That’s just who he is. He always thinks less of himself and he’s always looking to elevate those around him and it’s been great. He’s instilled confidence in a ton of players in the locker room, throughout their ups and downs … it’s a great leader to have.”

The fact that Curry won the game after playing a season-high 42 minutes made the win that much sweeter for a team that starts a four-game East Coast swing on Friday in Orlando. Curry’s late run offered another reminder of how overwhelming his talent can be to opponents. His shots mentally toppled a Heat team that is used to making other teams wilt over time.

“I just think he hasn’t just built up his body and his skill over the years,” Kerr explained. “I think he’s built up his mind. And he’s so strong-willed that he doesn’t let things bother him and he knows that the law of averages are going to play out. He has so much belief in his shot that he’s going to keep shooting. It’s the same reason he shoots three-quarter court shots when there’s still time on the clock. He doesn’t care about the percentage. He actually believes that’s a shot he can make, so he takes it. And same thing applies when he’s in the midst of a tough night, he always believes the next one is going in. He’s got an incredibly powerful belief in himself.”

No matter how poorly things started in the beginning, Curry never doubted that he would be able to turn things around. He trusts the work he puts into his game — and that filters all the way through the rest of the Warriors roster.

“You play enough games and go through enough experiences, you know what it’s like to kind of feel a little lost when shots aren’t falling,” Curry said. “And you know how you mentally react to it and what you can do to keep your confidence and stick with it … it’s just bread over time … I’ve been shooting since I was nine. You got to be able to figure out how to get through some bad shooting games.”



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