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Russell Westbrook delivers on midseason vow, leads Washington Wizards to playoffs

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During an impassioned speech that took place in the middle of the season after a loss, Russell Westbrook told the Washington Wizards that they were going to make the playoffs despite all the injuries, a COVID-19 outbreak and losing streaks the team had to endure this season.

On Thursday night, Westbrook delivered on his vow, scoring 18 points, dishing 15 assists and grabbing eight rebounds to spark Washington’s emphatic 142-115 play-in tournament rout over the Indiana Pacers to clinch the eighth seed.

Washington next faces the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday in the first round after completing a relentless run to a playoff berth that hasn’t been done in nearly 25 years. Once a dismal 17-32 on April 5, the Wizards became the first team to make the playoffs after being 15 games under .500 during the season since the Phoenix Suns in 1996-97.

It’s something that has been done only six times since 1984.

“We were struggling and everybody was down on the outside and we had to figure out a way to knuckle up and make the playoffs,” Westbrook said about his playoff promise to the team. “Simple as that. I didn’t care what happened in the previous games…we had to figure ourselves out, look at ourselves in the mirror, starting with myself.

“I made it clear to the guys that we’ll make it.”

Washington led by 14 at the half but blew the game wide open in the third quarter, making 15-of-20 shots and exploding for 48 points in the period.

The Wizards went on a 30-14 run at one point in the third, as Westbrook and Bradley Beal (25 points) overwhelmed Indiana. Beal scored 16 points in the quarter, including taking a bounce pass from Westbrook on a backdoor cut for a thunderous baseline dunk. As Beal hung on the rim, Westbrook turned back up the court and let out a primal scream while raising both of his arms in the air.

The 5,333 fans on hand celebrated as the franchise was heading to its first playoff appearance since 2017-18.

“Probably the most beautiful thing I’ve seen us do all year,” Beal said of Thursday’s result. “I haven’t been in the playoffs in three years. I’m definitely happy to be back.”

Thursday’s win comes after Washington played one of its worst games in months on Tuesday and lost 118-100 to Boston to drop into the game against Indiana for the final seed of the playoffs.

None of the Wizards looked great in that loss at Boston, including Westbrook, who finished with 20 points, 14 rebounds and five assists while shooting 6-for-18 and missing all four of his 3-point attempts. The point guard didn’t look right nor did he have nearly the same energy and aggression he had been playing with for months during his triple-double assault in breaking Oscar Robertson’s all-time triple-doubles career record this season.

Westbrook, who will be playing in a postseason for the 11th time in 12 years, admitted he wasn’t feeling 100% and was dealing with some “nicks and bruises.”

“I was so pissed in my performance,” Westbrook said. “Just wasn’t feeling the best when my team needed me the most. Everything happens for a reason. I knuckled down and took care of my body and made sure my mind was right coming into tonight and making sure my energy and effort was there and my team could follow me.”

The playoffs were practically a dream when the Wizards were in the middle of a nightmarish start to the season. They endured a COVID-19 outbreak that brought the organization to a complete halt for nine days and landed seven players in health and safety protocols. And they’ve sustained season-ending injuries to starting center Thomas Bryant and first-round pick Deni Avdija.

“We have done things, there’s no template, there is no book that we could have read [on how to handle],” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “We didn’t know 90% of the things that we were doing because we were learning it on the fly. Not having practice, not having shootaround, being away from the team for 10 days, having seven guys basically miss three weeks in January and all the injuries on top of that.”

But that was all a distant memory as the blowout was apparent in the third quarter. Before Brooks turns his attention to Joel Embiid and the Sixers, he remembers how Westbrook’s leadership and playoff promise helped turn this season around.

“I don’t even remember what game [it was], he gave a very passionate, very direct talk to the group,” Brooks said. “He was like, I am not going through this season and not making the playoffs. Not that he predicted it but he said I am not going to let this happen and not make the playoffs. We are going to step up and fight for one another.

“[It was] almost like, you guys better be ready for what is about to take place and it turned around.”

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France survives Luka Doncic triple-double, to face Team USA for gold medal

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SAITAMA, Japan — Game on the line, chance for gold on the line, and Slovenia’s Klemen Prepelic thought he had a layup that would have given Slovenia the win.

France’s Nicolas Batum thought differently.

Batum reached over Prepelic to block the layup try with 2.4 seconds left, the final play in France’s 90-89 win over Slovenia in a men’s basketball semifinal at the Tokyo Olympics on Thursday night — overcoming a historic night from Luka Doncic.

Doncic had the third triple-double in Olympic men’s history: 16 points, 10 rebounds and 18 assists. But it wasn’t quite enough, and Slovenia fell to 17-1 all-time when Doncic is in the national team colors.

He may be good as gold one day, but not yet. France will play the United States on Saturday (11:30 a.m. local time in Japan, 10:30 p.m. ET Friday) to decide the gold medal at the Tokyo Games. France has been this far at an Olympics only once, losing to the Americans in the title game at the 2000 Sydney Games.

France has won the past two meetings with the U.S., first in the quarterfinals at the Basketball World Cup in 2019, then to open group play in Tokyo.

Nando de Colo had 25 points for France, Evan Fournier scored 23, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot added 15 for the winners — now the last unbeaten team left in the men’s tournament at 5-0. Rudy Gobert had nine points, 16 rebounds and four blocks for France, and Batum blocked four shots, none bigger than the one at the end.

Mike Tobey scored 23 for Slovenia, which got 17 from Prepelic.

France trailed by eight in the first half then went up by 10 late in the third before needing to survive a wild fourth quarter. Slovenia tied the game twice in the final period, both times on baskets inside by Tobey, but never took the lead.

Luwawu-Cabarrot took a kickout pass from Gobert with 56.1 seconds left and made a wide-open 3-pointer to put France up 90-85. A free throw got Slovenia within four, then Fournier fouled out on an offensive foul while dribbling upcourt on the next France possession.

Slovenia had life.

Prepelic took a pass from Doncic on the ensuing possession and hit a 3-pointer to get Slovenia within one. Then it came down to the last shot, which Batum knocked away as Slovenia argued for a foul to no avail.

Doncic had flirted with triple-doubles twice already at these Olympics, finally getting this one on a rebound that set up the final Slovenia possession. The other triple-doubles in Olympic men’s play: Alexander Belov for the Soviet Union in 1976 and LeBron James for the U.S. in 2012.

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Julius Randle agrees to 4-year, $117 million extension with New York Knicks

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New York Knicks All-Star forward Julius Randle has agreed to a four-year, $117 million contract extension — elevating his deal’s total value to five years and $140 million, his agents Aaron Mintz and Steven Heumann of CAA Sports told ESPN.

The extension includes a player option on the final season in 2025-2026.

Randle had a remarkable, breakthrough season for the Knicks, earning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award and second-team All-NBA honors on his way to leading the franchise back to the playoffs with a fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.

Randle could’ve waited for his contract to expire next season and signed a new $200 million deal, but extending now off his current $19.8 million salary for 2021-2022 gives the Knicks financial flexibility to shape the roster and allows him to commit through his prime to a franchise and city he has come to adore — and has come to adore him.

Randle, 26, flourished under the NBA’s Coach of the Year, Tom Thibodeau, averaging 24 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Randle helped return the Knicks to the postseason and became something of a New York basketball cult hero for playing such a significant role in the Knicks revitalization.

Randle arrived to the Knicks on a three-year free agent deal in 2018 after two seasons with the New Orleans Pelicans, and four with the Los Angeles Lakers. Randle was the No. 7 overall pick out of Kentucky in the 2014 NBA draft.

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Kevin Durant, Jrue Holiday rally Team USA past Australia, to Olympic men’s basketball gold-medal game

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SAITAMA, Japan — When Team USA started feeling that historic heat, the creeping grip of an unshakable loss, they went to the men with the rings.

Kevin Durant and Jrue Holiday, NBA champions, showed the kind of skill and poise that is absolutely vital in high-level basketball.

Durant and Holiday didn’t just break Australia’s spirit in the Olympic semifinals, they lifted their entire team up around them in a brilliant performance that led to a 97-78 victory. It means a berth in Saturday’s gold-medal game as the Americans will go for their fourth in a row.

Australia had prepared for this game for a long time and came out with a smart game plan, crisp execution and tight focus. The Australians showed Team USA some defensive looks they’d clearly saved, unveiling double teams and speed rotations that got the Americans on their heels.

This game meant everything for the Boomers, who were in their fifth Olympic semifinals and looking for their first win. They have seven players with NBA experience, led by Patty Mills, one of the greatest scorers in Olympic history, playing in a game that would have earned them respect amongst their peers and their countrymen for the rest of their lives.

With that as the backdrop, they played like it and methodically built a 15-point first half lead. This has turning into a calling card for this version of Team USA, which tends to start games with choppy execution and poor shooting.

It was dangerous to dig a hole under these circumstances but, bottom line, the Americans had Durant, who had 23 points and wasn’t needed in the fourth quarter, and the Aussies didn’t.

With the offense sputtering and the 3-point shooting, the heart of Team USA’s offense that was absent as they missed their first 10 3s, totally failing, Durant put his head down and went to work. He grinded his way to seven first-half baskets. Holiday was his partner, putting together six first-half assists while being the lead defender on Mills.

The U.S. closed the first half on an 8-0 run as Australia started to waver as the lead with cut down to just three. This was a vital moment, especially because the Americans have shown an ability to be a great third-quarter team.

When the second half started, Durant and Holiday took the game by its neck and put it down. Holiday, who had 11 points, made two baskets and Durant made three out of the gates, two of them 3-pointers. It was a 12-0 run that made it 20-0 when attached to the end of the second quarter.

It was helped by strong defense led by Holiday and Durant challenging shots and backed but big men Bam Adebayo and Draymond Green, whose versatility came through. After starting 13-of-26 shooting, the Australians were clearly shaken by the Americans going on the run and started missing even the easiest of shots as they went 3-of-16.

Durant and Holiday’s confidence was infections, particularly to Devin Booker. With the Aussies desperate to stop Durant, Holiday started looking for Booker. He nailed two 3-pointers and scored 10 of his 20 points in a third-quarter kick that turned the game into a rout. Mills ended up with 15 but most of them after the game was already decided.

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