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Utah Jazz using last season’s blown 3-1 lead ‘fuel’ effort to close out Grizzlies

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Donovan Mitchell is confident that his team has learned from its past playoff mistakes and will use last season’s 3-1 meltdown at the hands of the Denver Nuggets as “fuel” to close out the Memphis Grizzlies.

After taking another commanding 3-1 series lead for the second year in a row in the first round — thanks to a 120-113 Game 4 win over the Grizzlies on Monday night — Mitchell acknowledged that he believes his team has grown from last season’s postseason bubble meltdown.

“We’ve seen this before,” Mitchell said after scoring 30 points. “We’ve been here before. This is the exact moment we’ve played — we’ve played up to being this team that we’ve been, because of that moment, I would say. Because that fueled a lot of this season. And we’re here again and we’re going to go out there and just do what we do and not really relish in the past. Although, it definitely is fuel.”

Part of the reason why Mitchell sounds so confident is that since he returned in Game 2 from an ankle injury, his team has answered every challenge the tough Memphis group has thrown at them. After outlining how the Grizzlies have repeatedly come back in games no matter how far they’ve gotten down, Mitchell noted that last season’s postseason defeat gave the Jazz a greater sense of focus throughout this year and in this series.

“That’s what really lost that in the bubble was we stopped executing on the little things,” MItchell said. “Because we felt like ‘Oh, it’s okay, they got to win three more times in a row.’ I think having that [experience] will allow us to kind of come in and be like, ‘All right, this is what we got to do.’ One more hit, one more sprint to the corner. Getting back on defense, taking a foul, whatever it may be.

“Having that be so fresh, having it be last year, I think that definitely helps us understanding that Game 5 isn’t a guarantee; just because we’re going home and we’ve won two in a row. This team is going to fight and compete. I think the biggest thing is our mental fortitude and continuing to go out there and play like we’re down 10.”

Jazz coach Quin Snyder echoed similar sentiments — believing his group will be ready for the challenge that comes in a close out game after the organization’s bubble history.

“I’m sure it’s something that the guys have discussed at various times,” Snyder said. “I think we’re looking at it more generally, as opposed to pointing to a specific series or a specific time. That situation in the bubble was a really unique one and that’s certainly not to discount the fact that we were in a position that we want to be in again. But this is a different year and this is a different team.

“We’ve got Bojan [Bogdanovic] back. Derrick [Favors] is here this year. There’s some things about our group right now — and I think there’s a maturity. We’ve been through a lot, and I think when that happens, all of us, whether it’s personally or certainly the team, you pull each other along. And I think that’s the growth process that’s taken place with our team.”

Veteran guard Mike Conley, who struggled to find his rhythm at times last season in his first year with the Jazz, knows that his new team hasn’t forgotten the sour taste it had after blowing such a big lead to the Nuggets.

“We obviously remember that feeling that we had last season,” Conley said. “And it’s not something we want to experience again. I think this team is different, I think the circumstances are a little bit different. Bojan’s back and I think another year for me to be kind of comfortable in the situation I’m in … I think we got a different team, different mindset and hopefully be able to get our minds focused on business and not let this one slip away like we did last year.”

For Mitchell, the incremental growth of the season came in how they celebrated Monday’s hard-fought win.

“We didn’t come in the locker room like, ‘We got ’em,'” Mitchell said. “The job’s not done. It’s not finished. And I think that’s the message. I know that’s the message. 1-17, coaches everybody. We have to go there and take care of homecourt back in Utah and I think that’s where our head is at. This was a good win. There’s things we could have done much better. We’ll go ahead and execute that and take care of business at home.”

After all the ups and downs the Jazz have endured before, during and after the bubble, Snyder spoke with the conviction of a man who believes there will be a different outcome this time around in a similar postseason situation.

“Last year is last year,” Snyder said. “Just like the regular season is the regular season. I think there’s things that you take from the past that you learn from. There’s experience for our group that’s been going on for a while. This was a team that was questioned on every level last May and those types of moments and that type of adversity, they’ve handled properly; you learn from it and you’re better.”

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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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