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Washington Wizards finish improbable run to lock No. 8 seed for play-in tournament

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For months, the 2020-21 season looked like it would be a lost one for the Washington Wizards. There were injuries early on, rumors swirling about a Bradley Beal trade and eventually, COVID-19-related absences that took the Wizards off the floor for nearly two weeks.

The Wizards were 17-32 on the morning of April 7. That’s when ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gave them just a 4% chance of even making the play-in tournament.

However, things started to change, as the Wizards won 17 of their final 23 games, culminating in a 115-110 come-from-behind win over the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday to lock up the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference play-in tournament.

“We went through those rough periods we had and we came out stronger for it,” said Wizards center Robin Lopez, who finished with 18 points Sunday.

Now, a team that didn’t look like it had a viable chance to even make the play-in has two chances to try to secure a spot in the playoffs.

It looked bleak on Sunday as Charlotte jumped out to a 16-point lead in the first half before the Wizards wrestled the game away late.

“This game kind of mimicked our season,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “A lot of crazy things happened to us. We were getting punched left and right and we just somehow kept battling and coming up with a play here and a play there. They had us on the ropes early. They had us on the ropes [in the] middle of the game. They had us on the ropes toward the end.

“But we just kept getting up and fighting for one another. I’ve been talking about brotherhood for a while now. This group gives a really cool definition of brotherhood, and I can see it firsthand.”

The Wizards finished off the Hornets even thought leading scorer Beal didn’t look like himself. Beal, who ended the season second in the scoring race to Golden State’s Stephen Curry, finished with 25 points but was 8-of-27 from the field and 3-of-11 from deep.

He had missed the previous three games with a hamstring strain and was clearly laboring through the first half.

Brooks said he was preparing not to play Beal, but roughly 30 minutes before tip, Beal told him he wanted to go and Brooks and the medical staff carried out their plan to monitor Beal throughout the game.

“I cannot say enough about Brad’s toughness,” Brooks said. “He is so skilled and athletic, but the four years I’ve been here, there’s not a lot of guys who have his mental toughness, his focus and his determination. He’s been put in very difficult positions over the last three years because of injuries and he had to lead our group by himself. Now he has a partner.”

That partner is the NBA’s all-time leader in triple-doubles, Russell Westbrook, who added another one against the Hornets with 23 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists.

Westbrook finished the season averaging 22.7 points, 11.7 assists and 11.5 rebounds per game. It’s the fourth time he has averaged a triple-double for the season as he posted career highs in assists and rebounds per game. He also locked up his third season assist crown.

“Like I said all season long, I’ve always had the utmost confidence in everybody in the locker room,” Westbrook said. “Always try to find ways to weather the storm. You gotta give credit to our coach because he’s done an amazing job of making adjustments on the fly. The players always get the recognition but Scotty has done a hell of a job of being consistent and finding ways to make us better along with the coaching staff. We’ve had a lot of guys step up.”

Washington will take on Boston in the play-in tournament’s 7-versus-8 game on Tuesday night. The winner will advance to the playoffs as the seventh seed while the loser will face the winner of the Indiana-Charlotte contest on Thursday to see who makes the playoffs as the eighth seed.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Wizards are looking to become the first team since the 1996-97 Phoenix Suns to be 15 games below .500 at any point in the season and still make the playoffs.

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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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