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Bucks’ Khris Middleton to miss regular-season finale vs. Chicago Bulls

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CHICAGO — Milwaukee Bucks star Khris Middleton will miss the regular-season finale against the Chicago Bulls because of a sore left ankle.

Middleton, averaging 20.4 points, was ruled out Sunday after scoring 21 points the previous night in a win over Miami. The two-time All-Star is missing his fourth game this season.

The Bucks began the day a game behind Brooklyn for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They needed a win over the Bulls plus a loss by the Nets to the Cleveland Cavaliers to clinch the second seed. Otherwise, they would finish third in the East.

Milwaukee had won three straight and eight of nine entering Sunday’s game.

The Bulls held out stars Zach LaVine (right knee tendinitis) and Nikola Vucevic (rest) as well as Daniel Theis (sprained right hip), Tomas Satoransky (sprained left ankle) and Troy Brown Jr. (sprained left ankle).

Chicago was eliminated from contention for the play-in tournament Friday when Washington beat Cleveland.

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LA Clippers’ Paul George delivers in Game 5 win with Kawhi Leonard sidelined

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With Kawhi Leonard out indefinitely with a sprained knee, Paul George channeled his old mindset of being the franchise leader in Indiana and produced arguably his finest game and moment as a member of the LA Clippers.

Playing in front of a hostile crowd that has taunted his every move, George delivered a superstar performance with 37 points, a playoff career-high 16 rebounds and five assists in leading the Clippers to a 119-111 win over the Utah Jazz in a pivotal Game 5 before 18,007 at Vivint Arena. The Clippers took a 3-2 series lead and can clinch on Friday at Staples Center.

“It was no secret,” George said of what he had to do without Leonard. “I knew I had to be big tonight and got to be big going forward.”

Afterward, George was asked if this is what “Playoff P” — the nickname he coined for himself to much criticism before Oklahoma City faced Utah in the 2018 postseason — looks like.

“Sure,” George replied with a smile.

By joining Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant as the only two players to have at least 35 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in a game this postseason, George has the Clippers just one win away from reaching the franchise’s first-ever Western Conference finals for the second straight postseason.

And he helped the Clippers do it without Leonard, the team’s best player. Leonard suffered a right knee sprain in the fourth quarter of Game 4 on Monday and was unable to finish the final 4:35 of the game.

Head coach Ty Lue said the Clippers are awaiting results from further tests to see what the timetable is for Leonard’s recovery. Leonard originally flew to Salt Lake City with the team before returning to Los Angeles.

Leonard informed his teammates late Tuesday that he’d be out for Wednesday’s game, sources told ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne.

“Oh, man, it was a blow,” George said of his reaction when he found out. “It was a tough blow. But you know, at the end of the day, we don’t want nothing but the best for Kawhi. It’s a positive; he can get some rest. Hopefully we can hold it down. But it’s a positive. You know, he’s got a new baby boy here. A lot of positives, a lot of love for him and his family.”

In front of a crowd that has no love for him dating back to that 2018 first-round series between the Thunder and Jazz, George came out aggressive and remained that way even when Utah threatened to bury the Clippers under an avalanche of 3-pointers. The Jazz drilled 17 of 30 triples by halftime, with Bojan Bogdanovic knocking down his first six attempts in the first quarter alone.

But George hit nine of his first 14 shots and scored 22 points in the first half, and the Clippers followed their All-Star guard.

“He’s incredible,” said point guard Reggie Jackson, who hit numerous big shots when the Clippers needed them and finished with 22 points. “Paul is special. … You’re going to have the naysayers and critics, but that’s what you love about this game. You just have to try to put it behind you.”

Jackson said George “seemed calm” after hearing the news on Leonard.

“It didn’t seem like it hurt too much,” Jackson said. “He was ready to put the team on his back to carry extra weight, and he showed up and proved why he’s one of the best players in this league and why he’s been incredible for us when we had him for the entire season. … He just kept playing with conviction.”

The Clippers were heavily criticized last postseason when they blew a 3-1 lead in the second round to Denver. George drew heat as well for struggling with his shot in the bubble last postseason, culminating in Game 7, when he shot 4-of-16 for 10 points. He later admitted that he experienced bouts of depression while in the bubble and that it impacted his mental health and play.

George came into this season determined to have a bounce-back year and erase the bad taste of last postseason. Lue said George told him before the morning shootaround Wednesday, “T, I got us.”

“Have a lot of respect for PG,” Lue said of George, who played 40 minutes. “Like you can’t judge a guy’s career off what they do off one series. Like I know a lot of great players that have bad series or a bad game or a bad two games in a series, but whenever he has a bad game they want to make a big deal of it. It’s whatever. You know, just keep playing. Keep being who you are, and at the end of the day, you know, you can live with the results.”

George has quieted even his most vocal critics of late. He has scored 30 or more points in three straight games. Utah’s scorching shooting finally cooled off in the third quarter, but the Jazz made a final run and cut a 10-point deficit to 110-106 with two minutes remaining. George responded by burying a 19-foot jumper while being fouled. He converted the three-point play and hit two free throws late to seal the win.

George shot 12-of-22 overall, with just one of his field goal attempts going uncontested, according to data from ESPN Stats and Information. He also helped hold the Jazz to 4-of-13 shooting and forced turnovers as the primary defender.

If he can keep up his recent tear in this series and continue to channel his old mentality when he was the franchise player for the Indiana Pacers, George has a chance to lift the Clippers to the Western Conference finals for the first time in their 50 seasons — the most played by a team without reaching the league’s penultimate playoff round among active NFL/NBA/MLB/NHL franchises, according to ESPN Stats and Information research.

“I’ve been in Indiana, where I had to lead a franchise,” George said of having to lead without Leonard. “The beauty here is I get to do that with one of the best in the world in Kawhi. Now Kawhi is down. It was just that mindset being back in Indy having to set the tone and come out and lead a ballclub.

“That’s really the mindset I came out with. It was nothing that I had to prove. It was nothing that I had to be surprised about myself. I just dug into a place that I’ve been already in my career, and it just came down to trust. Everybody just allowed me to lead and they kept pushing me. They just kept me into a great mental space.”

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Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell says ankle pain ‘something I’m going to have to deal with’

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The soreness in All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell‘s right ankle has worsened throughout the Western Conference semifinals, sapping his explosiveness and forcing him to attempt to adapt his game with the Utah Jazz on the brink of elimination.

“It’s something I’m going to have to deal with,” Mitchell after the LA Clippers took the series lead with a 119-111 road win in Wednesday’s Game 5. “I mean, it f—ing sucks. I ain’t got nothing else to say. Like, it’s tough when you’re trying different things that you normally do and you see spots you can get to, but you can’t, so you got to find a way to make it happen.

“It’s tough, but I got to find a way. Otherwise, I’m going to be home. And I said it last year … and I said during the year, we didn’t do all this to lose in the second round, so we got to figure it the f— out. Otherwise, that’s it. Excuse my language.”

Mitchell, 24, missed the final 16 regular-season games and the Jazz’s playoff opener due after spraining his right ankle on April 16. Mitchell has aggravated the injury on multiple occasions during the second round, and his effectiveness has dropped off drastically since a pair of spectacular performances in the Jazz’s two wins to open the series, when he averaged 41 points on 52.5% shooting from the floor.

Mitchell finished with a postseason-low 21 points on 6-of-19 shooting in Game 5, snapping a streak of six consecutive 30-plus-point performances. In the past three games — Utah’s first three-game losing streak of the season — Mitchell has averaged 29.3 points but shot only 37.7% from the floor.

“For most of my life, I’ve been able to push by, explode by, and jump through people or over people, and for the first time in my career, I’ve had to play on the floor,” Mitchell said. “Knowing when to attack, picking my spots, finding my teammates, I think that’s the biggest thing, being able to kind of get off, hit them when they’re doubling me and engaging the blitz. And I think I did a solid job of that. I can do better. It’s a learning process and it sucks that I’m learning this through the playoffs, but it is what it is and no excuses.”

Mitchell is carrying an even bigger offensive burden than usual because of the absence of All-Star point guard Mike Conley Jr., who has missed the entire series because of a hamstring strain. Conley said Wednesday that he recently suffered a setback.

The Clippers have occasionally double-teamed Mitchell in the past three games in an effort to force the ball out of his hands. He is averaging 4.6 assists and 3.0 turnovers per game in the series.

“He is carrying a huge load, not just trying to create offense for himself, but for the group,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “[The Jazz medical staff] will continue to evaluate him and see where he is after tonight and continue to monitor that [ankle] and make decisions going forward that obviously have Donovan’s best interests at, first and foremost in mind.”

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NBA Playoffs 2021 – Without Kawhi Leonard, Paul George pledged to carry the LA Clippers through Game 5

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Every person who lived, worked or played in the NBA Bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, last summer was affected by the experience — some rather profoundly. Between the isolation, the separation from friends and family, the inability to escape from the game — or even the Disney campus — the challenges presented by the Bubble were unprecedented. And by and large, the teams who were the most successful in the playoffs were those who handled those challenges with the most aplomb.

This season was supposed to be more normal, with games back in home arenas and the ability to see family and friends. But there was nothing normal about this season, either, with its condensed schedule, constant COVID-19 testing, games lost due to health and safety protocols, and of course the rash of injuries to players — especially All-Star players in these playoffs. Just as it was last year, the teams who have been most successful thus far are those who have handled the unprecedented challenges this season has presented.

The LA Clippers were dealt a tremendous blow Tuesday night when they learned All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard had suffered a sprained right knee and would miss at least Game 5 of their second-round series.

The news hit the team, and the NBA community, hard. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James even took to Twitter for an I-told-you-so rant about the condensed season correlating with All-Star players being lost to injuries.

But the Clippers took the punch to the gut in remarkable fashion, steadying themselves — and their season — with an impressive 119-111 win on the road in Utah behind 37 points, 16 rebounds and five assists from Paul George and 21 points from Reggie Jackson.

“This was the biggest game of our season,” George said after the game. “Especially being down our best player. We knew coming into this, we had to play together. We had to step up.”

There will be all kinds of theories offered on how LA found the grit and the gumption to play at such a high level after receiving such bad news about their best player.

Perhaps it was the confidence they built from a tough seven-game series against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, when the Clippers lost their first three home games, but rallied to win all three road games and then finally, Game 7 at home.

Perhaps it was all the experience LA has, playing without the oft-load managed or injured Leonard, who has missed 36 games in his two seasons with the team. George has typically elevated his game when Leonard is out, averaging 25.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists, including an especially good run this past April when he averaged 29.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists in seven games while Leonard was out with right foot soreness.

Perhaps they just stuck with the adjustments that started working against the Jazz starting in Game 3 — a small lineup with Marcus Morris Sr. at center, trapping Jazz star Donovan Mitchell whenever he tried to drive.

Whatever the case or cause, the Clippers are leading this series 3-2 with a chance to advance to their first-ever Western Conference finals Friday night at Staples Center (10 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App), because thus far they’ve handled the unique and unprecedented challenges presented by this season well.

“We’ve been playing men down all season,” Jackson said. “We feel like it prepared us for this moment and we don’t want our journey to end here. We want to give [Leonard] a chance to rest and figure out what’s going on and hopefully he’ll be back with us.”

It was an especially satisfying win for the oft-maligned George, who came out aggressively with 10 points in the first quarter, 22 in the first half and finished with 37 points on 12-of-22 shots. He also played stout defense, holding the Jazz to 4-of-13 shooting, blocking two shots and forcing two turnovers.

George spoke very candidly last season about the ways the Bubble environment affected his mental health. But this year George has consistently said he’s put last season behind him, and was determined to create a new story for himself and his team this year.

After shootaround, he told Lue and his teammates, “I got us,” to trust that he would carry the team with Leonard out.

“[George] said the same thing after the game, ‘Thank you for trusting and believing in me all season long,'” Lue said. “He’s been phenomenal.”

That’s been Lue’s approach with George all year: show him trust, focus on the future.

Of course the Clippers’ future is still clouded by the injury to Leonard, which will not be known until he can have further testing done once the swelling in his knee subsides, sources told ESPN.

The Jazz’s future has much the same forecast. All-Star guard Mike Conley has missed the entire series with a hamstring injury. Donovan Mitchell has been noticeably hampered by an ankle injury, which cost him 16 games in the regular season. Mitchell was often seen wincing in pain Wednesday night in Game 5, as he struggled to find his usual explosiveness and finished with 21 points on 6-of-19 shooting.

“That’s what I’m learning right now,” Mitchell said after the game when asked about playing through injury. “For most of my life, I’ve been able to push by, jump by, explode and go over people. And now I’m learning to play on the floor.

“It’s something I’m going to have to deal with [the rest of the playoffs],” Mitchell continued. “It f—ing sucks. … You’ve got to find a way to make it happen. It’s tough, but I’ve got to find a way. Otherwise, I’m going to be home.”

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