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Washington Wizards’ Russell Westbrook returning from quad injury

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Washington Wizards guard Russell Westbrook will play in Sunday’s game against the San Antonio Spurs, according to coach Scott Brooks, marking his first game action in more than two weeks due to a left quadriceps injury.

Westbrook hasn’t played since Jan. 8 due to the injury, which was caused by repeated contact to his quadriceps area, according to the team. But he has missed only two games due to a COVID-19 outbreak among the Wizards that led to six games being postponed.

Sunday’s game is the first for the Wizards since a win over the Phoenix Suns on Jan. 11. They still have six players listed as out Sunday due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols.

Westbrook, who is listed as a starter Sunday, is averaging 19.3 points, 11.3 assists and 9.7 rebounds in seven games this season.

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Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers have hit the first true challenge of their title defense, with Saturday’s 96-94 loss to the Miami Heat marking the third defeat in their past four games since Anthony Davis aggravated his Achilles tendinosis and suffered a calf strain in his right leg.

A question for these Lakers has emerged: Does LeBron James need to do more to help his teammates or do his teammates need to do more to help James?

“I feel like the last couple games that’s been happening, putting a lot on Bron,” Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said after the game. “We already know what we’re going to get out of him. So all the rest of us, we’ve got to continue to just play hard and just play basketball and not worry about anything else.”

James scored 19 points on 7-for-21 shooting against the Heat (including just 1-for-8 from 3-point range), accounting for his worst shooting percentage of the season. He also coughed up a team-high five turnovers.

James, after stealing an inbounds pass intended for Jimmy Butler with 5.4 seconds left in the contest and setting up Alex Caruso for a potential game-tying shot that missed, insisted his teammates don’t need to pick up any more slack while Davis and starting point guard Dennis Schroder are sidelined.

“They are doing their part,” James said. “They’re doing their part and more.”

No, James said it’s on him to lead L.A. out of the rough patch it’s in, as he has done for the majority of his 18-year career with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Heat and now the Lakers. Saturday’s loss dropped the defending champions to No. 3 in the Western Conference standings.

“I think that’s what it all boils down to, and right now is another challenge for me, to be able to adjust,” James said. “Not having AD for a long period of time is something that we haven’t had over the last year and a half, and now it’s time for me to adjust again and see ways I can be even more effective to help this team win ballgames. Because that is the sport that we’re in.

“We’re in the winning business, and I’ve always been a winner. So, it’s time to click into that.”

James wasn’t the only one to struggle shooting the ball against Miami. The Lakers went 1-for-13 from 3-point range in the fourth quarter and didn’t fare all that much better for the game, hitting 13-of-45 attempts (28.9%) from the outside.

“We try to help him out as much as possible, and we want to do it as perfect as possible, as we can,” said Caldwell-Pope, one of only three Lakers to make more shots than he missed against the Heat. “We try to help him out, we try not to make too much mistakes when we’re on the floor with him or even running a play with him, just to give him some help. We do ask Bron for a lot; he gives us a lot each and every game.

“It’s up to us as far as like role players and ‘next man up’ mentality, we’ve got to be ready and locked in.”

Caruso, who is 10 years younger than James, said being mindful of not burning out James in February with a championship run planned for the spring and early summer is a “conscious thing” for his teammates.

“I mean, LeBron is the best player on our team, and night in and night out you can see attention he gets because he is,” Caruso said. “With the guys that we got out, teams are going to load up against him. He has a great basketball mind, and he’s going to do his part to get guys open to make great plays.”

For James, who rallied in support of his team by saying, “Every time we’re on the floor, we’re all trying to protect each other and bring each other up out on the floor every single night,” there was one minor critique of a teammate he did share, however.

Down by two points with 1.4 seconds left in the game, he said he wished Caruso would have taken a couple of steps back to launch a 3 and go for the win.

“I think the only bad thing about it is that he shot a long 2,” James said of Caruso’s 22-foot shot that hit the front rim at the buzzer. “I wish he would have shot a 3 and, make or miss, I’ll live with that.”

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Russell Westbrook shows he still has an elite gear to his game for Washington Wizards

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In the Washington Wizards locker room, coach Scott Brooks stood at the front of the room, acknowledging players for their impact on a big win in Portland.

He started with Isaac Bonga, who played only five minutes, but was a plus-five in the box score.

“Those five minutes were huge,” Brooks said. He moved on to Rui Hachimura, calling him a “difference-maker” the last two weeks, with his defensive versatility.

He brought it in for a huddle, and there was some standard joyful commotion, but then a brief pause. There was an understanding someone else had the floor, as he does after every game when he wants it.

“Hey, stay locked in to what we’re doing,” Russell Westbrook said. “Don’t get tired doing the same s—. Don’t get tired of it, don’t get bored, don’t get tired doing the same s—. This is what we do.”

The broke the huddle with “family” on three and with it, the Wizards walked out of the Moda Center with a fourth straight win, beating the Portland Trail Blazers 118-111, showing signs of straightening out their wobbly start to the season.

Westbrook played maybe his best game of the season, scoring an efficient 27 points, adding 11 rebounds and 13 assists for his eighth triple-double of the season. Which puts him second all-time in triple-doubles in Wizards franchise history — already — passing John Wall and Wes Unseld, and only behind Darrell Walker (15). Bradley Beal scored 37 points, Hachimura added 17, Davis Bertans hit some 3s, and the Wizards looked like a good team.

It has been a choppy season for the Wizards, with the league’s health and safety protocols disrupting them for weeks as the team dealt with a COVID outbreak and contact tracing. There have been injuries, big and small. There have been excruciating losses. There have been significant embarrassments.

“We kept saying we need games, we need games,” Brooks said. “Well, February has given us games. That’s what we need.”

After trading John Wall for Westbrook before the season, there was optimism that the former MVP’s leadership and intensity could transform the young Wizards and elevate them into a sturdy Eastern Conference playoff team. And Brooks maintained for weeks, despite the frustrating lows, that the Wizards were on the verge of breaking through.

What was going unsaid, though, was the Wizards needed Westbrook to rediscover his elite level to do so. A quad injury sidelined him for weeks in early January, and the lost games and practices the team was dealing with kept the rust on his game. Westbrook is a known rhythm player, needing games to work out issues. The more he plays, the sharper things get. His handle is tighter. His jumper is softer. His decision-making is better. His finishing is stronger.

“He’s getting in a rhythm. He’s going to have more games like this,” Brooks said. “The guy’s a championship player. How he prepares. How he talks to our guys. He forces the team to be ready.”

But at 32 years old, Westbrook had to take a different approach to his recovery. It was a slow process, something that required an adjustment.

“To start the year, I was debating, and it was a difficult spot for me honestly, because I don’t like to let my teammates down. I want to make sure that I’m available for them, even if I’m not 100 percent,” he said. “And that’s just something I’ve always done. It’s probably not the best thing to do, but honestly as I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to stop. I’ve had to stop because I wasn’t able to explode and move the way I needed to.”

There were moments where the questions were being asked about him, the ones that have long been anticipated. There were alarming signs of washedness. He looked a step slower and the electricity wasn’t turning on. The ferocity wasn’t the same. But, Westbrook said, that was just because he was trying to play a longer game for once.

“Now I’m feeling a lot better,” he continued. “I’m able to move around and explode and get by people and make an impact on the game on both sides of the floor and as the season goes along I’ll keep getting better. I’m not worried about that one bit.”

Westbrook has spent 12 seasons playing exceptionally hard, and doing it with the kind of night-to-night consistency few players are equipped to handle. There are a lot of miles on him, and knee procedures to go with it. His style is to disregard personal safety within the confines of 48 minutes, never spending a moment fretting about the future, instead only focusing on the here and now. His approach is what has made him into an NBA legend. But it’s also what he will spend the twilight of his career battling against.

After the Wizards beat the Nets a few weeks ago in the wild comeback in the final five seconds, Brooks was blunt about the different process Westbrook has gone through this season. Westbrook’s instant trampoline ability was always something Brooks marveled at, and Billy Donovan after that, how the point guard could seemingly roll out of bed, crank the energy to 10 and blast off for dunks. It was the same way he approached injury recovery, playing through almost any small ding, and taking on the bigger stuff with a ferociousness that had him coming back early from knee surgeries, playing with a dent in his face, and dealing with ligament tears in his hand.

“He didn’t do that this time,” Brooks said a few weeks ago, after the Wizards shocked the Nets on Westbrook’s wild 3. “Which I’m glad, because he’s an old man now.”

What Westbrook wanted in a trade out of Houston was to get back to his now-I-do-what-want ways, leading a team on and off the floor. He wanted to bring his immense gravitational pull to a new locker room and for a team to take on his intense identity. He wanted to play his way and not worry about analytical equations. In desperate need of a culture refresh, the Wizards wanted it too.

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Russell Westbrook passes to Rui Hachimura down low for a two-handed dunk vs. the Trail Blazers.

“He has set the tone. Our guys are much more in tune how to prepare to win a game,” Brooks said. “He’s led us so many ways I don’t even want to get into. Our players know it. Ask any player on this team. They know he means business. This is not a hobby for him. A lot of times in this league, people look at it as a hobby. It’s fun, we get to do something we love. I get that. But it’s still your job, your livelihood, how you represent your organization, your city, your family, your coaches. And Russell does that at the highest level I’ve seen.

“He’s given us a pathway to how to be a championship level [team],” Brooks added. “Our young guys need it. Sometimes they don’t understand how hard he is on them, but they’re going to realize it in years to come that that’s how you start your career off the right way by being around good players.”

Beal is set to start the All-Star Game and gives credit to Westbrook for helping push him to be better. Westbrook has a long history of playing alongside high level talent and on top of it, elevating them. He helped Kevin Durant win four scoring titles and an MVP. Paul George played the best season of his career with Westbrook. And alongside Beal, Westbrook recognizes his place as a complementary star, stepping aside to let his teammate cook, but also imparting his will when necessary.

“My job is to make sure to continue to push him and bring the best out of him every night,” Westbrook said of Beal.

Westbrook has never been a model of consistency. His recklessness is part of his skill, a basketball renegade willing to take on the burden of failure. But what he needs is for his motor to run at top gear, even if the oil needs changing a little more often.

“I don’t see the ups and downs that you’re stating. I see his shot go up and down,” Brooks said, “but his game is not based on making and missing shots. It’s based on leading us.”

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Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green ‘crossed the line’ with late ejection, Steve Kerr says

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Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr admitted that forward Draymond Green “crossed the line” Saturday night when he was ejected in the final seconds of a 102-100 loss to the Charlotte Hornets.

The wild sequence that led to Green’s ejection started with 9.3 seconds left in regulation with the Warriors leading 100-98, when Warriors guard Brad Wanamaker was tied up for a jump ball by Hornets guard LaMelo Ball. After Hornets swingman Gordon Hayward corralled the ball off the tap and fell to the floor, Green appeared to quickly tie Hayward up for a jump ball. However, the Hornets were awarded a timeout.

Green began arguing with officials and was quickly given two technical fouls and ejected, giving the Hornets two free throws and the ball. Charlotte guard Terry Rozier went to the line and sank both free throws to tie the score at 100-100.

Seconds later, Rozier drained a shot from the corner at the buzzer to give the Hornets the win.

“He crossed the line,” Kerr said of Green. “That’s the main thing. We love his passion and his energy. We would not be the team we are without him, but that doesn’t give him license to cross that line, and he knows that.”

Via a pool reporter, crew chief Marc Davis explained Green’s ejection.

“His first technical was assessed when he directed profanity at his opponent,” Davis said. “He was assessed his first technical foul for verbally taunting an opponent. He then proceeded to direct screaming profanity at a game official and received his technical foul and was ejected as per rule.”

Kerr said he “didn’t have time to ask” for an explanation in the heat of the moment, given that the Warriors were rushing to check Juan Toscano-Anderson into the game to replace Green.

But what irked Kerr and the Warriors’ staff occurred in the sequence before the jump ball. Kerr said he was calling for a timeout before Ball tied up Wanamaker to create the jump ball in the first place.

“There’s a lot to unwind,” Kerr said of the final few seconds. “But if you just want to cut to the chase it’s a very difficult call on a loose ball that becomes a jump ball that they get a timeout on. Especially because in the exact same situation I was trying to call a timeout when Brad had the ball at the top of the key when they forced the jump ball just prior to that.

“So given that the exact same thing happened back to back, only we actually had possession of the ball when I tried to call timeout. And then watching the replay after the game, it’s a loose ball, the ball’s actually bouncing on the floor, Draymond dives after it, in my estimation it should be another jump ball.”

Davis explained that in the officials’ judgment, the tie-up occurred before Kerr requested a timeout. For his part, Wanamaker admitted he didn’t hear Kerr calling for a timeout, but he wasn’t sure exactly how the sequence played out.

“LaMelo ties Brad up prior to Kerr requesting the timeout,” Davis said. “The postgame video confirmed this decision as correctly judged.”

It was a ruling that the Warriors did not agree with, but it was a moment that Green took responsibility for. Warriors forward Eric Paschall said when the team got back to the locker room after the game, Green took the blame for picking up the two late technicals.

“He said it was his fault,” Paschall said. “And he took ownership as he always does as a leader. We’re still rocking with Dray no matter what. A great dude, competitor, so it’s all good. S— happens in the NBA. We’re just going to learn from it and try to come back, try to win the next one. Great leader and competitor.”

As much as Warriors teammates and coaches respect Green, Kerr was clearly frustrated with Green’s inability to control his emotions late in the game. For years, Green has been a league leader in technical fouls as he loudly voices his objection to various calls from officials or words from opponents, but Kerr has said repeatedly through the years that he felt Green knows when not to cross a line.

It was a line that Green stepped over on Saturday, leading to a loss that would have been arguably the Warriors’ most impressive of the season, given that star guard Stephen Curry (illness) was a late scratch and centers James Wiseman (wrist) and Kevon Looney (ankle) remain out.

“Draymond can’t do that,” Kerr said. “He knows that. He made a terrible mistake getting T’d up and giving them a chance to shoot two free throws and tie the game. … As his coach, it’s my job to communicate with him and with the team. That’s what we’ve done and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”

Davis stated that the Hornets were awarded a timeout before Green’s ejection, and before Green tying up Hayward, because the group felt the Hornets made the timeout call in time.

“PJ Washington requested its timeout and Gordon Hayward had clear and sole possession of the ball,” Davis said. “As per rule, Charlotte was granted the timeout. Postgame video review confirms this decision.” Despite Kerr’s frustration with Green’s actions, Green’s teammates repeated a similar message about their leader after the game.

“He’s been in this league long enough,” Warriors guard Damion Lee said. “He knows what’s right and what’s wrong. And it doesn’t matter day in, day out, I’m always going to ride with Day Day. Throughout the good, throughout the bad, I’m always going to ride with Draymond … it doesn’t matter if I’m a Warrior or not a Warrior. That’s my guy. That’s one of my vets. And I’m always going to ride with Day Day.”

Aside from Green’s technical fouls, Kerr spoke with a tinge of sadness that his shorthanded team couldn’t close the door after fighting so hard all night without Curry.

“It’s a tough loss, obviously,” Kerr said. “They don’t get any tougher than this one. That’s two straight, back to back, really difficult losses. That’s my job to get the team organized and emotionally ready to play New York. We’ll keep moving forward. That’s what you do. The NBA season is filled with a lot of ups and downs and obviously this is a really tough one, but you got to get ready for the next game.”

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