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2021 NBA playoffs LA double feature shows Lakers returning to form, Clippers faltering

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For as long as they have shared basketball rights — and hearts — in Los Angeles, there have been remarkably few playoff matchups between the Lakers and Clippers over the years. Like zero, to be precise. Fifteen years ago, the Lakers were one win away from creating the first “Hallway Series” at Staples Center. Last year, the Clippers were one win away from confronting their rivals in the Western Conference finals. But alas, the Lakers blew a 3-1 series lead against the Phoenix Suns in 2006, and the Clippers did the same against the Denver Nuggets in 2020.

There was a chance they’d play in the first or second round this year, but the Clippers somehow managed to lose their final two games of the regular season to two of the worst teams in the league to defer a potential matchup until the conference finals.

But that’s it. A bunch of what-might-have-beens and Tuesday night’s very-oddly-scheduled doubleheader with both LA teams — still the betting favorites in Las Vegas to come out of the Western Conference — tipping off within a half hour of each other, both trying to come back after dropping the first game of their respective first-round playoff series.

On this night, the two teams were going in very different directions. The seventh-seeded Lakers beat the second-seeded Suns 109-102 in front of a raucous, mostly maskless crowd of 11,919 in Phoenix to even their best-of-7 series at 1-1 heading back to Los Angeles.

The fourth-seeded Clippers looked lost trying to solve the brilliance of Dallas Mavericks superstar point guard Luka Doncic (39 points, seven rebounds, seven assists), trailed by double-digits at home for most of the night in front of a stunned, fully-masked crowd of 6,885 at Staples Center and lost 127-121 to fall into a 2-0 hole heading back to Dallas.

Only 31 teams in NBA history have won the first two games of a best-of-7 series on the road. Twenty-seven of those teams went on to win the series.

Long odds for the Clippers, who must now take a long look in the mirror to figure out how these past two seasons, which began with so much promise, could have gone so far off track.

Will the tantalizing battle of LA — which seemed so inevitable after the teams tussled over Kawhi Leonard in free agency two summers ago — ever happen?

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Luka Doncic continues his stellar postseason start by scoring 39 points and leading Dallas to a 2-0 series lead.

For two teams starting the night in the same hole, they ended it further apart than ever. The Clippers are now two games away from elimination and in a deep existential crisis. The Lakers have seemingly righted the ship with dominant performances from Anthony Davis (34 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, three blocks) and LeBron James (23 points, nine assists) and a wounded opponent heading back home for two games at Staples Center.

Davis had put the loss in Game 1 on himself and vowed to do better. Asked after this game if James had given him any advice on how to respond, Davis said: “We’ve been together for a while now. He don’t have to be in my ear. He saw it on my face. Since last year he’s always been on me about perfection, playing hard, playing through environments like this. So it’s paying off. I got to the point where I don’t need Bron to come in and tell me what I need to do. I know now.”

James and the Lakers tipped off first, and they had both experience — James had never lost the first two games of the playoff series in his 14-year career — and circumstance — Phoenix point guard Chris Paul was hampered all game with a shoulder injury — on their side.

Still, Phoenix made a competitive game of it behind gutty performances from Devin Booker (31 points) and reserve guard Cameron Payne (19 points, 7 assists), and another uber-efficient night from third-year center Deandre Ayton (22 points, 10 rebounds on 11-13 shooting).

Payne even rallied the Suns to a 90-89 lead late in the fourth quarter, finding Ayton for a dunk with 5:39 to go. But the championship mettle of James and Davis took over down the stretch as they scored 16 of the Lakers final 18 points to seal the road win.

It’s hard to know, as it always is when Paul suffers an injury in the playoffs, how different things might have been if he was healthy. But he took just five shots Tuesday night and sat out over nine minutes of the second half with an injured right shoulder which kept him from even attempting a 3-pointer, both career playoff lows according to ESPN Stats & Information.

With Paul injured, Booker and Payne understood they needed to fill both the scoring void, and the leadership gap, which they did admirably. But down the stretch, they had no answer for Davis and James.

“It’s going to be tough, but we all have to step up,” Booker said. “We don’t know how his health is right now. How quickly he’s going to recover. But everybody has to give a little bit more.”

The Clippers tipped off a half hour later, determined to be more aggressive in attacking the rim against a consistently inconsistent Dallas defense, and mostly succeeded in doing so.

Leonard scored 30 of his game-high 41 points in the first half. George had 28 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. But nobody had an answer for Doncic, whose brilliance seems to be growing exponentially by the game.

In the first game of the series, the Clippers were reluctant to tire George or Leonard out by assigning them to defend Doncic. In Game 2, they had no other choice.

Even when the Clippers went to their cheat code: putting Leonard — a former Defensive Player of the Year — on Doncic, he still managed to score eight points on 3 of 6 shooting.

But perhaps most damaging, Doncic pivoted to setting up his teammates whenever the Clippers made a point of stopping him. The Mavericks feasted on uncontested 3-pointers on Tuesday, hitting 11 of 14 (79 percent) and 18-of-34 3-pointers overall.

Tim Hardaway Jr. hit 6-of-8 3-pointers as part of his 28 points. Kirstaps Porzingis hit 3-of-4 3s as part of his 20 points.

“I give credit to Luka. He’s good. He’s special,” George said. “We got to rise to the occasion. If we don’t, we are done for.”

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Gold medalist Scottie Pippen offers memorabilia, a culinary spread and other amenities during Airbnb promotion

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Have you ever wanted to kick back and watch the Olympics at a Hall of Famer’s crib? If so, Scottie Pippen is offering an opportunity to do just that.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist is offering basketball fans a nightly rate of $92 for full access to his two-bed, one-bath Airbnb listing to “cheer on the next generation of Olympians from my home court!”

Pippen’s home is located in Highland Park, Illinois and valued at $2 million.

Bookings begin at 1 p.m. EDT on July 22nd for three respective stays on August 2, 4 and 6. Guests are responsible for their own travel to and from the abode.

Upon checking in, guests will receive a virtual greeting from Pippen, who last month announced the launching of his bourbon company DIGITS.

“When you enter my home, you’ll step into sports history – finding Olympic Games memorabilia from my time as a U.S. Olympian, plus items from Team USA’s 2020 Medal Stand Collection that you can take home with you!” the six-time NBA champion describes in the listing.

Respective guests can bring up to three visitors for the overnight stay, which will include an opportunity to check out the Olympic action from Pippen’s home theater with his indoor basketball court not far away.

Other accessible amenities include:

• An outdoor pool with an outdoor television to remain tuned into the Olympic Games

• Playing a few games of your own in Pippen’s arcade room

• Relaxing in an indoor sauna

• Dining on a pre-game spread of fresh fruits with veggies or Pippen’s big-game dinner of steak, a baked potato and asparagus

The 2010 Naismith Hall of Fame inductee remains one of the most decorated players Team USA has ever had. In the program’s history, he ranks tenth in points (170), third in assists (47) and is tied with LeBron James in steals (36). In 1996, Pippen won his second career gold medal and was named one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players ever. His No. 33 is among four retired digits in Bulls history.

The 2020 Tokyo Games were initially scheduled for last summer, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed them back to this year.



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Giannis Antetokounmpo staying calm and focused with Milwaukee Bucks on the verge of an NBA championship

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MILWAUKEE — For eight years, Giannis Antetokounmpo has worked toward the moment he and the Milwaukee Bucks find themselves in right now: one win away from an NBA championship.

So it should come as little surprise that Monday afternoon, just over 24 hours before playing the biggest game of his NBA career, when he and the Bucks can win the title in Game 6 of the NBA Finals at home against the Phoenix Suns, Antetokounmpo admitted that the mantra he has repeated ad nauseam throughout these playoffs — to stay focused on the present and not think about the future — is harder to live by than ever.

“It’s hard, man,” Antetokounmpo said with a smile after Monday’s practice at Fiserv Forum. “It’s hard. Because you work so hard to be in that moment, which is tomorrow. It’s hard not to get ahead of yourself.

“But this is the time that you got to be the most disciplined. That’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m going to try to be as disciplined as possible. Don’t get too excited. Don’t get too pumped up for the game. None of that. I can’t play the game right now … right now, there’s nothing I can do about that. So I don’t even try to think about that. But it’s very hard not to. Sometimes you sleep and you’re dreaming about the game.

“But this is the time that we have to be disciplined individually … we got to be disciplined and we cannot worry about that. We cannot worry about having plans of celebrating. None of that, until it’s done. And that is the mindset I’m going to have until tomorrow.”

Staying even-keeled and focused on the moment are key components the Bucks collectively, and Antetokounmpo personally, say they’ve been missing in their failed playoff runs over the past few seasons. This was particularly the case the past two years, when Milwaukee — after entering the playoffs as the top seed in the Eastern Conference — crashed out in losses to the Toronto Raptors in the conference finals two years ago and to the Miami Heat in the conference semifinals in the NBA’s bubble last season.

Throughout this season, however, the Bucks have been determined to approach things differently. And despite falling behind in each of the past three playoffs series — including going down 2-0 to both the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals and the Suns in this series — Milwaukee has managed to do just that.

The Bucks have done so, in large part, because their leader has been able to do so by sticking to that mantra of staying in the moment, enjoying the competition and letting the results fall where they may.

“We didn’t get too high, we didn’t get too low,” Antetokounmpo said. “We were down 0-2 to Brooklyn. Came back. We did our job. We’re down right now. We came back, did our job. We were down against Atlanta [in the conference finals]. Came back, did our job. We were up against Miami. Went there, did our job.

“We kept focusing, building good habits. I think it comes from, as I said, Coach [Mike Budenholzer], Khris [Middleton], Jrue [Holiday], me, to have that mentality. And then you pass down to the whole team. So we did a really good job.

“Now, is it going to end up well in the championship? Who knows. But no matter how it ends up, I’m really proud of this team. Really proud of all the work we have put in.”

Antetokounmpo, who revealed during his news conference that his longtime girlfriend is expecting the couple’s second child, has been relaxed and engaging throughout the Finals during his media availability, whether on practice days or after wins and losses on game days.

That same atmosphere has permeated the Bucks, who have shown to be unflappable in situations that, in the past, would’ve sent them spiraling — and, ultimately, sent them home falling short of their goals.

It’s a mindset Milwaukee is hoping can pull it through what will be a very long 24 hours before Tuesday’s tipoff (9 p.m. ET, ABC).

“Treating it like every regular-season game that we have had, every playoff game that we have had,” Middleton said. “Taking one game at a time and every game is a must-win. That’s it.”

Part of what has allowed Milwaukee to approach things that way are the trials and tribulations this group has gone through together. The core of the team — other than Holiday and P.J. Tucker, who arrived this season — have been through those playoff failures of the past two seasons together. Antetokounmpo and Middleton, meanwhile, have been teammates for the past eight seasons here in Milwaukee and have played more than 60 playoff games together in their careers.

That’s a lot of shared experiences to lean on and learn from — particularly as the Bucks have tried to rewrite their history this time around.

“It helped me mature and grow and become more mentally tough,” Antetokounmpo said of those past failures. “It doesn’t really matter. This is a playoff game. Anything can happen. I remember in the [2019] Eastern Conference finals [against Toronto], we were up 2-0 and lost four straight. I’m trying to think what was the mindset of the other team.

“Leaving Milwaukee down 2-0, and now they’re thinking they got to go back home, protect home court and then come back here, get one. I’m just trying to think about what they did and try to learn from our mistakes and our failures as much as possible.

“I don’t focus on the past. I try to learn from it and move on. I think it has helped me throughout my career. When we were down 2-0, [I thought], ‘They did it, why cannot we do it?’ That kind of thing. Or when we’re up 2-0, ‘finish. Get the job done.'”

He also admitted he hasn’t always been able to lock into that type of mentality.

“I think, early in my career, I was getting too high, too low,” he said. “We played a good game, I was so happy, because you feel the intensity from the crowd, the fans cheering and all that, and how the trip back home if we were on the flight or whatever the case might be, we were here at home, playing at home, how I felt good going back home. I was getting too high, and maybe the loss I felt like it was the end of the world.

“I feel like this year, lose or win, that did not happen. I was the same kind of guy. I just live with whatever outcome comes because I believe that I’m supposed to be there in that time and place. So I don’t really worry about the outcome.”

It’s a mindset Antetokounmpo will now try to apply to the biggest game of his life, as he tries to lift his Bucks to the same outcome they’ve had the past three games — all wins that have moved Milwaukee closer to winning a championship for the first time in a half-century.

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New Washington Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. says team aligned on needed improvements

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It did not take Wes Unseld Jr. long to get in touch with Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal.

The Washington Wizards‘ newest head coach and the franchise’s backcourt stars all appear to be on the same page with what the team needs to do to take a step forward.

“I felt like I was talking to the same person, and I say that because the message was clear: They want to be coached, they are looking for the accountability,” Unseld Jr. said on Monday. “… I think they both know offense is not the issue right now [for the Wizards]. There is buy-in right now. We’ll see as we get into training camp and the preseason, there has to be carryover. [But] there is an alignment there in thought. We are all on the same page as to what is going to be required of them. The best part about that is both of them, as leaders of this team, are committed to being better on that end.”

The Wizards proudly introduced Unseld Jr. as their new head coach on Monday, bringing the franchise back under the Unseld name. Wes Unseld was one of organization’s greatest player who led the Bullets to their only championship in 1977-78 and was the team’s former head coach and vice president.

Unseld Jr. started his career with the Wizards as an advance/pro scout in 1997 and was an assistant coach for the Wizards for six seasons. He returns to the District after being an assistant coach in Denver for the past six seasons, overseeing the defense and helping with the development of MVP Nikola Jokic.

“The one thing that has always stood out with Wes is his intelligence about the game, where the game is headed, the modern NBA, and certainly his proficiency on the defensive side of the ball, which is an area which we absolutely must address immediately,” Washington general manager Tommy Sheppard said. “I think that is something he will deliver on.”

Sheppard added that Unseld Jr.’s relationships with players over the years impressed the Wizards.

“He worked with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson when they were young,” Sheppard said. “With [Nikola] Vucevic, Tobias Harris and [Victor] Oladipo in Orlando, and you look at the MVP season that Jokic had and Jokic was begging him not to leave Denver. Jamal Murray, all the different players that he touched there … when players call you to tell you that you should hire this guy unsolicited, that is pretty impressive to me.”

In addition to celebrating the Unseld heritage with Washington, defense was the clear theme of the coach’s introductory news conference. The Wizards allowed the most points in the NBA at 118.5 per game this past season.

So even though the Wizards overcame a COVID-19 outbreak, numerous season-ending injuries and a 17-32 start to make the playoffs, Unseld Jr. replaces Scott Brooks with an eye on improving defense and preparation.

Wizards owner Ted Leonsis said he watched film with Unseld Jr. during the hiring process and was impressed with his eye for detail. Leonsis said Wizards players in exit interviews talked about improving on “the little things; they talked about defensive intensity, they talked about communication.”

“You’ve seen that a lot of assistant coaches are taking the next step, especially this summer,” Leonsis said. “I think there is a reason for that … Sometimes when you are a second- or third-time head coach, I don’t think you work as hard. I think you rely on your assistant coaches. What I found with the interviews and especially in talking with Wes, how they do the game-planning, they know the players, they know the tendencies, and they have to work really hard to prepare for each and every game.

“I looked at our team and there were times when I thought we lost games that we shouldn’t have. Yes, defensively, but I think having a work ethic and a demanding style will be a very good point of differentiation for us.”

Westbrook and Beal will be playing their second season together, but it might feel more like their first full season given the issues the team faced in a condensed 72-game schedule. The duo hopes to have a healthy Thomas Bryant back along with developing young players in Rui Hachimura, Daniel Gafford and Deni Avdija.

And the man in charge of bringing them together to play better defense and win is someone who will be following in the giant footsteps of his father.

“Put in a lot of hours to get myself in this position,” Unseld Jr. said. “I know my dad is up there smiling down. He is probably chuckling, [cracking] ‘Moron, I told you not to do this [coaching].’ So I know he is extremely proud.”

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