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Capitanes, Mexico City’s G League franchise, set sail on debut season away from Mexico

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Nearly two years ago, NBA commissioner Adam Silver took the podium at Mexico City’s premier indoor arena to announce the league’s first established foray outside of the U.S. and Canada in the form of the minor league Capitanes, which were to join the G League in 2020.

The G League’s 29th franchise would be a “historic milestone for the NBA,” the commissioner said at the announcement.

“[It] demonstrates our commitment to basketball fans in Mexico and across Latin America,” Silver said at the Arena Ciudad de Mexico in December 2019. Within 48 hours of Silver’s remarks, the NBA further cemented its presence in Mexico at the arena by holding its ninth and 10th regular-season games in the country since 2014.

By planting their flag in Mexico with Capitanes — Spanish for “Captains” — the NBA was hoping that a successful expansion would open doors and activate the next phase of its global plans. Yet what appeared to be a rise toward an inevitable crescendo of permanent professional sports ventures for Mexico City came to a screeching halt with the onset of the COVID-19 virus.

Because of the worldwide pandemic and the circumstances that came with it only a few months later, Silver’s commitment to Mexico remains an unfulfilled promise of sorts. On Friday, the Capitanes will finally make their G League debut, but not at all as they had expected. Beginning with the opener against Memphis, the team will play its 12-game Showcase Cup campaign entirely on the road. In fact, the team will not venture into Mexico City during its inaugural season, the latest challenge in trying to incorporate the franchise into the fold.

Only 18 of the G League’s 29 teams participated in a reduced 2020-21 schedule between February and March of this year at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Bay Lake, Florida — the same facility that housed the NBA’s bubble in 2020. The Capitanes were among those opting out, choosing instead to debut in 2021-22.

“We’ve made this difficult decision, which we’re sure will yield a safer debut,” co-owner Moises Cosio revealed then in a statement.

The announcement was made with eyes on a Mexico City G League debut at their usual home base, the Juan de la Barrera gymnasium. But Mexico’s status as one of the countries hit hardest by COVID called for another audible. In September, Capitanes settled on Fort Worth, Texas, as a base of operations, agreeing to play all of their Showcase Cup games in the United States. Practice and housing facilities for players and staff will be based there, but the Capitanes will travel for every game this season.

“I don’t know if it’s a disadvantage, but there’s definitely some difficulties,” said Nick Lagios, the team’s 31-year-old general manager. “There’s just no familiarity [with Fort Worth]. It’s all new things for all of us. “

Lakers connection

The NBA has not been alone in courting Mexico City, a sprawling megalopolis of about 22 million people. In just a few months in late 2019 and early 2020, the city hosted the UFC, the PGA Tour, Formula One, and the NFL via a Monday Night Football clash between the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers. At the city’s Plaza del Toros bullring, tennis legend Roger Federer drew a then-record 42,517 fans for an exhibition match against Alexander Zverev.

When Silver made his announcement, Lagios was in his first year as the Los Angeles Lakers‘ basketball development coordinator, capping a rapid career rise since joining the organization in 2016. He had initially joined from the team’s G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers, going from video coordinator to director of basketball operations in just one season there. Despite graduating to the parent team in 2019, Lagios had his sights set on being a GM, even if it meant returning to the G League.

“[International] basketball is my passion. I did everything I could to reach out to the G League and agents who might know people in the organization,” Lagios said. “I didn’t think it was ever going to happen. It just seemed like a dream.”

Despite already working with one of the NBA’s most prestigious franchises, Lagios spent months lobbying for the general manager position in Mexico City and was eventually hired in May. Since, he’s been diligently taking Spanish lessons and visiting the city constantly to get acquainted with what will eventually be his new surroundings. In October, he visited the fabled Estadio Azteca and watched the Mexican men’s national soccer team play in a FIFA World Cup qualifier.

“It was just so intense,” Lagios said. “The passion was amazing and the ambience was crazy. It gave me goosebumps.”

The career move away from the Lakers also meant that Lagios, who grew up a Boston Celtics fan in Maine, could regain some standing back home in the northeast.

“A lot of my clothes right now are purple and gold,” Lagios joked. “It’s honestly nice to be able to wear different colors.”

While Lagios’ combination of G League experience and youth put him over the top, it didn’t hurt that said association with the Lakers struck a chord with Cosio, who credits Kobe Bryant with inspiring him to put the team together in the first place.

In 2016, Cosio, a film producer and entrepreneur, scored tickets to Bryant’s final game. He watched the late Lakers legend put together an epic 60-point performance in a win over the Utah Jazz. Six months later, Capitanes was announced as part of Mexico’s Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional, the country’s top pro league.

“I firmly believe that without Kobe, none of this would have ever happened,” Cosio told ESPN in February 2020, a month after Bryant, his daughter and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash. “Our plan was to eventually invite him down to a game in Mexico City and thank him personally.”

Cosio’s fandom spawned a successful entry into the LNBP. Capitanes quickly became a fan favorite and reached the league finals in each of their first two seasons. At the Juan de la Barrera, a 5,242-seater that hosted Olympic basketball in 1968, sellouts became increasingly common. In their three years in the LNBP, Capitanes racked up a 78-38 record under coach Ramon Diaz, a native of Spain who is continuing as the team’s coach in the G League.

Dream delayed

Several markets were considered for G League expansion, yet Mexico City’s established connection with the NBA, as well as its massive population, meant Capitanes had a leg up on the competition.

“Honestly, it was a long, difficult process,” Raul Zarraga, managing director for NBA Mexico, told ESPN in January 2020. “This had never been done before, it was all uncharted territory, and negotiations were tough. But [Capitanes] made it happen in the end.”

Throughout the process, Zarraga remained a conduit between Capitanes and his bosses at the NBA. At several points, he feared the negotiations could fall through and delay the shared dream.

“I couldn’t believe it was all real until the words came out of the commissioner’s mouth,” Zarraga said. “It was surreal.”

As it turned out, Capitanes’ official entry into the G League wasn’t the storybook ending those involved had envisioned, but merely the first chapter. Since COVID hit, only the United States, Brazil and India have registered more deaths from the virus than Mexico. More than half of the country’s population has received at least one vaccination against the disease, yet international travel restrictions remain a lingering issue.

The pandemic’s persistence made a Mexico City scenario less probable as time wore on. Capitanes operations were put on hiatus over the summer as several ideas were explored, including delaying the team’s debut another year. Finally, on Sept. 13, it was announced Capitanes would play on as scheduled, albeit entirely in the United States.

The uncertainty meant Lagios had a late start on signing players, an added handicap because the team requested he prioritize Latin American players in order to build a cultural bond with fans.

“Everybody else was pretty much set [with their rosters] by the time we started,” Lagios recalled.

Ultimately, the team will field a roster with notables such as NBA journeyman small forward Alfonzo McKinnie; Matt Mooney, who starred at guard for Texas Tech during its 2019 NCAA tournament title game run; and Mexican-born captain Moises Andrassi at shooting guard. Lagios’ roster includes nine players with Latin American roots.

Capitanes will only play in the Showcase Cup, a 14-game standalone tournament prior to the regular season, which ends in a single-elimination format during the annual NBA G League Winter Showcase. When the competition wraps up in December, Capitanes will once again face a long layoff — they have no regular-season games scheduled after the Cup — before potentially enjoying their first full season in 2022.

By then, the hope is the team will have finished its nomadic journey and begin playing home games in earnest. Mexico City itself should regain a similar frequency of hosting duties of top-tier sporting events.

Just two days after Capitanes debuts in the G League, Mexico City will again host Formula One’s Mexican Grand Prix, its first large-scale international sporting event since the start of the pandemic.

“We need those big sporting events that excite people,” Javier Hidalgo, director for the Mexico City government’s Institute for Sport, recently told ESPN Mexico. “The push that sports can give us isn’t just for financial gain or to attract tourism, but so we can integrate young people into sports.”

If and when Capitanes return to the Juan de la Barrera gym, the project can serve as an early case study on American sports leagues’ expansion into Mexico. For local fans, it will mark the opportunity to finally watch a high-level pro basketball team call Mexico its home.

“The Mexican fans, for any sport, are so passionate. I can’t wait for our first home game there,” Lagios said.

“I just hope we make them proud.”

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Portland Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups troubled by team’s effort in blowout loss to Spurs

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PORTLAND, Ore. — New Portland Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups questioned his team’s effort after a 114-83 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night.

The Blazers were without All-Star guard Damian Lillard but still put up little fight against a Spurs teams who came into the contest six games below .500.

“My biggest concern, I think, at the moment, is I want us to compete harder, man. I want us to compete harder,” Billups said. “I want us to be competitive in every game. And I don’t feel like every night we do that. We don’t. And it concerns me. And I’ve felt that way in a lot of our wins. This is not just after a loss, me saying this.”

The Blazers fell below .500 with the loss and will be without their superstar for the near future. Portland announced on Wednesday that Lillard will miss 10 days with lower abdominal tendinopathy before being re-evaluated.

They could be missing third-year guard Anfernee Simons soon as well. Simons, who started in Lillard’s place on Thursday, suffered an ankle sprain in the first quarter and did not return.

The Blazers hired Billups this offseason with the hopes of improving the team’s defense, which has struggled again nonetheless this season. The Spurs, who have the fewest 3-pointers in the NBA, made 11 in the opening half — including the first three baskets of the game.

“We didn’t have enough personal pride defensively in the game tonight,” Billups said.

The loss is just Portland’s second at home this season. They are 1-10 on the road.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.

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Phoenix Suns set franchise record with 18th straight win

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Even with history looming as his team approached a franchise record win streak, Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams said he tried not to bring it up to his team.

But after a 114-103 victory over the Detroit Pistons set a new franchise mark with 18 consecutive wins, Williams allowed himself time to reflect.

“But it is really cool to be a part of something like that,” Williams said following Thursday’s win. “To win like this, the way we’ve won, guys out of the rotation, losing [Devin Booker], the relentless attitude of our team, the way we stick together, it makes it really cool.

“Obviously it’s hard to win in this league. But we’re not satisfied. We talk about stretching it out but it takes the right things to do that. So we’ve taken it one game at a time.”

The 18th win topped the previous franchise mark of 17 set by the 2006-07 Suns who went on to finish 61-21. The streak also ties the 2019 Bucks for the longest win streak of any NBA team in the last five seasons. The longest streak in NBA history belongs to the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, who won 33 straight games.

Suns players tried to downplay how much they thought about the streak on a day-to-day basis.

“It feels good but at the same time, I don’t know, I guess it feels good but we got another tomorrow,” Cameron Payne said. “We have to keep going. It’s 1-0 today. That’s how I feel.”

Suns point guard Chris Paul, who finished with 12 points and 12 assists, said it was a nice piece of history for the team but the focus remains on the bigger picture.

“But for us I think it’s always about the feeling of making sure we’re playing the game the right way,” Paul said. “We always talk about we have a standard. We say this every night and a win is a win but we feel like we could have played better.”

Phoenix was without their leading scorer in Booker, who missed the game with a hamstring injury. Without him, Phoenix focused on a more balanced scoring effort with seven players in double figures. Payne and reserve forward Cameron Johnson led the way with 19 points each off the bench.

“We have guys that can score the ball across all the lineups,” Johnson said. “Book puts a lot of points up on the board every night. We’re a team that we’re going to find buckets other ways when we need to and that’s what we did tonight.”

Phoenix, who picked up win No. 17 against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday, play the Warriors again Friday night on ESPN — a matchup Johnson is looking forward to.

“A team that we just played and beat at home, we get to go to their place, a division game. It’s a lot on the line,” Johnson said. “This is what playing in the NBA is about. Going into these environments with these implications. Granted it’s a December game, but it means a lot. It means a lot to us to continue this streak. It’s gonna be a fun one.”

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Memphis Grizzlies set NBA record after beating Oklahoma City Thunder by 73 points

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Memphis Grizzlies broke the NBA record for margin of victory on Thursday night, beating the Oklahoma City Thunder 152-79.

The 73-point margin easily topped the previous mark, which was Cleveland’s 68-point win over Miami. The Cavaliers topped the Heat 148-80 on Dec. 17, 1991.

“Tonight is not necessarily who we are,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “I think we’ve definitely shown that from a competitive standpoint. This isn’t indicative of who our team is.”

Memphis used 12 players and nine of them reached double figures in scoring, with Jaren Jackson Jr.’s 27 points leading the way. Memphis was without its best player, injured guard Ja Morant.

It was 72-36 at halftime, and the Grizzlies just kept adding to the lead, eventually pulling ahead by as many as 78 — the largest lead in any game since at least 1996-97.

The Thunder flirted with being on the wrong end of the record last season, trailing Indiana by 67 points on May 1 before rallying — such as it was — to lose by merely 57 points, 152-95.

This was worse. Historically worse.

The Grizzlies set a franchise record for shooting, making 62.5% of their shots. De’Anthony Melton scored 19 points, Santi Aldama scored 18 and John Konchar scored 17 for the Grizzlies, and none of those three players even started.

“Man, it feels great. It feels great to be in the history books, especially in front of our home crowd,” Melton said. “And we did it one through 15. Everybody contributed, everybody played hard and we all got to get in the game. So, it’s always a blessing.

“We knew with [Morant] going down what we had to do. We had to step up.”

No Memphis starter played more than 21 minutes. The Grizzlies’ bench contributed 93 points, outscoring Oklahoma City’s entire team by 14 points.

Lu Dort led the Thunder with 15 points, and Oklahoma City shot only 33%.

It was 12-8 after five minutes. From there, there was no stopping Memphis. The Grizzlies outscored the Thunder by 15 points in each of the four quarters.

It was the third straight game the Grizzlies have led from start to finish. The Thunder lost their eighth straight as they continued to play short-handed with a number of players unavailable, including leading scorer Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who entered concussion protocol earlier Thursday.

Gilgeous-Alexander scored 39 points against the Rockets on Wednesday night but suffered a blow to the head late in the game. Point guard Josh Giddey, who averages 10.4 points and 5.5 assists, sat out with a non-COVID-19 illness, and the remaining players couldn’t fill the void in Oklahoma City’s offense.

The Thunder had been competitive in their seven straight losses before Thursday night. Their largest margin of defeat was 13 points.

“When you compete, you have exposure to the highs and lows of competition,” Daigneault said. “And competition comes with great joy, and it also comes with grief and frustration and anger. And when you step in that ring, that’s what you expose yourself to is all of those things.

“It’s why the joy feels so good, because when you get punched and you taste your own blood, it doesn’t feel right.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.

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