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Denver Nuggets won’t let one bizarre loss mask their status as legit contenders in the West

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Late in the third quarter of Sunday afternoon’s game between the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics, things were going according to plan for the NBA’s hottest team.

Denver, which had won eight straight since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the NBA’s trade deadline last month, led by 10 when Nikola Jokic checked out of the game with 1:13 remaining in the third, and the Nuggets seemed well on their way to a ninth straight victory in a game they seemed to have completely under control.

That was the case, at least, until it wasn’t.

“I remember going out in the third quarter with like three minutes left, and we were up 14,” Denver forward Michael Porter Jr. said afterward. “And then, all of a sudden, they were up 10.

“I don’t even remember how it turned around like that.”

It’s hard to blame Porter for claiming amnesia to explain away what happened over the final 13-plus minutes of Sunday afternoon’s proceedings, a 105-87 Boston victory in which the underwhelming Celtics outscored Denver 36-8 from the moment Jokic checked out until the final buzzer — including a 31-8 advantage in the fourth quarter.

Denver couldn’t hit a shot, couldn’t get a stop defensively and couldn’t stop arguing with the referees — led by Jokic, the favorite to win this year’s Most Valuable Player award, who got yanked from the game by Nuggets coach Mike Malone with a little more than four minutes remaining and the Nuggets trailing by a manageable 12 points after going after the referees for consecutive possessions prior to a timeout.

“Regarding Nikola, he gets frustrated with the referees and what he perceives to be a lack of calls, and you understand that,” Malone said. “But that can never take you away from your duty as a basketball player. So that’s something that he, myself and all of us can definitely be better at.”

Malone made a point of saying on several occasions that Denver was in the middle of a stretch of six games in nine nights, and that guard Jamal Murray (knee) missed a fourth straight game. But the under-riding message from the coach to his star was obvious: If Denver is to be a true championship contender, both Jokic individually and his teammates collectively need to keep their composure in a much sturdier way than they did Sunday.

And, Sunday’s result aside, it’s perfectly reasonable for Malone to have those expectations for this team. During Denver’s eight-game winning streak, it had outscored teams by more than 10 points per 100 possessions and had the league’s highest offensive rating (120.6), per NBA.com’s stats page. The Nuggets’ new starting lineup — Murray, Gordon, Porter, Jokic and Will Barton — has outscored its opponents by a staggering 61 points in 90 minutes on the floor together across four games, with Gordon providing every bit of the passing and cutting offensively, combined with the defensive size and versatility on the wing, that the Nuggets hoped he would when they swung a deal with the Orlando Magic to acquire him.

As a result, Denver has quickly ascended from fighting to avoid a spot in the play-in games to having a chance at hosting a first-round playoff series, while Jokic has cemented himself as the favorite to win the league’s top individual honor.

All of that, though, made the way Sunday’s game played out all the more notable — including Jokic notably showing no interest in joining a late huddle after Malone yanked him from the game.

“I think the whole 30 teams are complaining and whining,” Jokic said, when asked whether he thought Denver got caught up in its complaints with the officials. “We are just one of them. It’s just how the game goes. They’re doing their job. We need to do our job. Sometimes it’s miscommunication, like arguments, of course, like in every job.”

Ultimately, Sunday’s game shouldn’t mean anything more than the eight that came before it. Even for the best teams, such games happen during the course of an NBA season. When they checked back into the game in the fourth quarter, Jokic, Gordon and Malone were all plus-15 while they were on the court in a game Denver trailed by eight — due to Monte Morris, Paul Millsap, JaMychal Green and PJ Dozier all being minus-22 or worse for the game.

In the playoffs, bench units become less of an issue. The return of Murray — who is in the midst of his best season, finally shooting better than 40% from 3-point range after his pyrotechnics during last year’s playoffs inside the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando — will certainly help, too.

But after last year’s run to the Western Conference finals, and after the trade for Gordon, the days of Denver being happy just to make the playoffs are long in the past. The Nuggets are one of five teams — along with both tenants at Staples Center, the Phoenix Suns and the Utah Jazz — that rightly believe they can escape from the gauntlet that is going to be the Western Conference playoffs, and make it to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

It left Malone ready to get back on the court 24 hours later in San Francisco to try to get the bad taste from Sunday out of his team’s collective mouth.

“We have to be better,” he said. “They turned up the heat, got into us, switched everything, and we allowed that to kill our offensive flow, and then we started complaining and whining, not getting back. Not competing.

“[But] the best thing about the NBA is we get on a plane this afternoon, go to Golden State and try to right the ship and play at a much higher level than we played today.”

The good thing for the Nuggets is that they won’t have to think too hard, or for too long, to remember just how well they had been playing up until Sunday’s inexplicable meltdown.

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Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley to miss Game 2 vs. LA Clippers

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Utah Jazz point guard Mike Conley has been ruled out of Thursday’s Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals against the LA Clippers due to a mild strain of his right hamstring.

Conley, who also missed Game 1, suffered the injury during the first half of Utah’s series-ending win over the Memphis Grizzlies last Wednesday.

Conley, 33, an All-Star for the first time this season, has missed significant time because of injuries to both hamstrings during his two seasons in Utah. He missed six games in February and nine games in late April and May due to tightness in his right hamstring.

Conley averaged 17.4 points and 8.6 assists for the top-seeded Jazz in the first round.

ESPN’s Tim MacMahon contributed to this report.

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USA Basketball sets plan for Olympic camps in Las Vegas

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For USA Basketball, the last stop before the Tokyo Olympics will be Las Vegas.

The men’s and women’s national teams will hold training camps in Las Vegas in July, they announced Thursday, and they’ll be playing seven exhibitions there against other Olympics-bound national teams as well.

USA Basketball will open its men’s training camp, led by coach Gregg Popovich, in Las Vegas on July 6. The Olympic men’s teams from Australia, Nigeria, Argentina and reigning Basketball World Cup champion Spain will also be spending some time in Las Vegas; Argentina will start its training camp there this month.

The U.S. women’s training camp under coach Dawn Staley will likely open around July 12; the WNBA break for the Olympics starts after the games of July 11. The Olympic women’s teams joining the U.S. in Las Vegas are Australia and Nigeria.

It’ll all take place at the MGM Resorts, which was announced as USA Basketball’s training camp home and resorts partner with the sides having now agreed to a multi-year sponsorship deal.

“USA Basketball is proud to expand its partnership with MGM Resorts,” USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley said. “We’re excited to bring our national teams to their properties as we prepare for the challenging competition that lies ahead this summer.”

The U.S. men are seeking a fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal, the U.S. women their seventh in a row. Both will enter the Olympics ranked No. 1 by FIBA, the sport’s international governing body — though it remains unknown who the Americans will have on their rosters for the rescheduled Tokyo Games.

Those rosters could be set by the end of June. Some top NBA players such as Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, Kawhi Leonard of the LA Clippers and Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers have expressed some interest in being part of the Olympic team; others, such as LeBron James and Anthony DavisLos Angeles Lakers teammates who were dealing with injuries when their season ended last week — are not planning to join the team.

All teams in Las Vegas will be taking part in what USA Basketball described as “comprehensive health and safety protocols … including mandatory and regular COVID-19 PCR testing, administered to athletes, coaches, officials and staff in accordance with FIBA and USA Basketball recommendations and CDC guidelines.”

Those concerns are why the international teams opted to spend time in Las Vegas. Argentina’s men’s team is conducting the entirety of its three-week camp there before flying to Tokyo, simply because it believes a controlled environment and less traveling between different countries will minimize virus-related risks before the Olympics.

“We were lucky and, at the same time, we deserved it to get an organization like USA Basketball to extend this invitation to us,” Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez said. “In such a complicated context it doesn’t get better than this.”

The games are set up as part of five doubleheaders, and fans will be able to attend the matchups at MGM’s Michelob Ultra Arena. Tickets go on sale next week.

GAME SCHEDULE

July 10 — U.S. men vs. Nigeria, Argentina vs. Australia

July 12 — Argentina vs. Nigeria, U.S. men vs. Australia

July 13 — U.S. men vs. Argentina, Australia vs. Nigeria

July 16 — U.S. women vs. Australia, U.S. men vs. Australia

July 18 — U.S. women vs. Nigeria, U.S. men vs. Spain

PREQUELS

The Nigeria-U.S. women’s game will be a prequel to the teams’ Olympic meeting on July 27 in Tokyo, the first game there for both of those teams. Nigeria and the U.S. are both in Group B at the Olympics, along with Japan and France.

The Australia-Nigeria men’s game is also the warmup for an Olympics-opening matchup. They’ll play in a Group B game on July 25.

The men’s teams from Spain and Argentina — the teams that played in the World Cup final at Beijing in 2019 — are both in Group C for the Olympics. They’ll both spend some time in Las Vegas but are not scheduled to face off there before flying to Japan.

FIBA RANKINGS

Las Vegas will see the top four men’s teams in the FIBA rankings there for the exhibitions: The U.S. is No. 1, Spain No. 2, Australia No. 3 and Argentina No. 4. Nigeria is ranked No. 22.

The U.S. women also hold the No. 1 FIBA ranking, and their July 16 opponent Australia is ranked No. 2 in the world. Nigeria’s women are ranked No. 17.

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Phoenix Suns’ Chris Paul ‘makes it look normal’ after notching 15 assists, zero turnovers in win vs. Denver Nuggets

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It had been seven years since a player had a game in the postseason with 15 assists and no turnovers, but Chris Paul accomplished the feat on Wednesday as the Phoenix Suns routed the Denver Nuggets 123-98 to take a 2-0 series lead.

The last player to post a 15-to-0 assist-to-turnover ratio in a playoff game? Paul, in 2014, with the LA Clippers.

“Guys are open. I got the easy part. All I got to do is find them,” said Paul, who had 17 points. “They got to make the shots. It’s a credit to our coaching staff to tell you the truth. Things we’ve drilled all season long, it’s nice to see it come into play in game form, especially in the playoffs.”

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Paul had the 10th playoff game with 15 assists and zero turnovers since assists were tracked in 1977-78. And Paul has accounted for three of those games himself.

“Obviously 15 assists, zero turnovers is unheard of,” Devin Booker said, “but for Chris Paul, it’s a thing that he does, and makes it look normal.”

In the two games in the series, Paul has 26 assists to just one turnover. Going back to his last three playoff games, that ratio gets even more ridiculous, sitting at 38-2. He’s the first player with 10 or more assists and one or fewer assists in three straight playoff games since Maurice Cheeks in 1989.

The Suns showcased their impressive balance with six players in double-figures, including all five starters. But even with 123 points, no player scored more than 18 (Booker). It was a clinic in distribution, particularly in a raucous second half, as Paul carved the Nuggets, finding efficient possessions nearly every trip down the floor. In Game 2, the Suns shot 15-of-24 off Paul passes. Of the 15 makes, 11 were uncontested looks.

“I’m telling you man, I’ve never been on a team quite like this where everybody can shoot it the way that they do,” Paul said. “You don’t have to try to find a certain guy.”

Like in Game 1, Paul found his spots to assert himself offensively, too, hitting a flurry of shots early in the fourth quarter as the Suns put the game away. It’s one of Paul’s many rare talents, an ability to sense moments and pick his spots to attack the game himself, or get teammates involved.

When Paul joined the surging young Suns in the offseason, there was a lot of talk about his role as a mentor, as a leader, as a culture cultivator. At age 36 and plenty of tread on his tires, Paul’s cerebral presence was thought to be something that could boost the Suns just as much as his play. But as he’s shown this postseason, there’s still plenty left in the tank.

“I would never doubt Chris,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “His ability to manage the team, his track record, has success all over it and everywhere he’s been he’s been successful. He works his tail off and yeah, he’s 36 years old but he’s doing a lot of stuff off the floor so he can be effective on the floor.”

The series now turns to Denver, where the Nuggets are desperate for a response. Paul has been using his experience as a motivator, recounting the 2007-08 second-round series against the San Antonio Spurs where the New Orleans Pelicans took a 2-0 series lead, winning the opening two games by a combined 37 points.

“We’re cool. We’re cool. We’ve got a great locker room, guys that understand the moment. A guy like Jae Crowder, who’s been to the Finals,” Paul said. “I’ve played a lot too. I’m always talking about 2007-08, we played against the Spurs when I was in New Orleans and we won the first two games, beat the brakes off of ’em. I remember looking over there at Tim [Duncan] and all them and they weren’t fazed. It was just one game. That’s what we talk about as a team too. It’s just one game.”

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