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Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard ‘focused on leading’ amid Neil Olshey investigation

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PORTLAND — Having already navigated speculation about his desire to be traded and pushback over the hiring of his franchise’s new coach in recent months, Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard said his duty will remain the same while the team opens an investigation into president of basketball operations Neil Olshey.

“The games continue. Our jobs continue. And that’s all we can do,” Lillard said Saturday after scoring a game-high 25 points in a 105-90 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. “That’s what we can control is doing our job and being prepared, and me being here for 10 years now and being a big part of this organization and this team, it’s my job to continue to do that the way that I have. And that’s what I can control and that’s what I’ll do.”

The Trail Blazers announced earlier Saturday that they had retained an outside law firm, O’Melveny & Myers, to “conduct a full, fair and independent review” into alleged “concerns about [the] workplace environment” caused by Olshey.

Olshey was hired by the Trail Blazers to run their front office in June 2012 after serving as the LA Clippers‘ general manager for parts of two seasons. A few weeks after getting the job, Olshey oversaw Portland’s selection of Lillard with the No. 6 pick out of Weber State, a little-known mid-major program in Ogden, Utah.

“I think the best way to lead is to focus on leading the team,” Lillard said. “We play basketball, and my job is to be the point guard and the captain of this team. And to continue to do that.”

Lillard, Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups and teammate Jusuf Nurkic all answered questions about the investigation in similar fashion Saturday, reporting no prior knowledge of the allegations against Olshey.

“It was news to me,” Lillard said. “I came across it just as everybody else did. But that’s all I know of it, that it’s an investigation.”

Said Nurkic: “All I know is what everybody knows from the statement from the team. And I have [nothing] specific to add.”

Billups, who was hired by the Trail Blazers in June and defended by Olshey when pressed by reporters about a rape allegation in Billups’ past, said he had not spoken to Olshey “about the situation at hand,” adding that they have had strictly game-related conversations.

“I mean obviously it’s unfortunate,” Billups said. “An unfortunate time. Obviously all I know is what everybody read, what everybody else knows from what they read about the report and the investigation. That’s all I know. There’s nothing else that I can really say more about that.”

Nurkic, who was acquired by Portland in a trade with the Denver Nuggets in February 2017 and saw his career blossom under Olshey’s watch, was asked to characterize his relationship with the executive.

“As far as our relationship, I don’t think we have a relationship,” Nurkic said. “We’re being pros, and that’s what I’m looking for.”

Lakers forward Carmelo Anthony, whose career was revived by Olshey and the Trail Blazers signing him after he had been out of the NBA for more than a year, said he hadn’t heard about the investigation until a reporter asked him about it after Los Angeles’ loss.

“You just broke that news to me,” Anthony said. “I have no idea about that. Yeah, you broke that to me, honestly. I have no idea what’s even going on with that.”

Portland improved to 5-5 with the win Saturday, moving past the Lakers for No. 8 in the Western Conference standings.

“You know, it’s a distraction because there’s so much talk about it, obviously,” Billups said. “But I can honestly say when I’m in that office and with the guys, I don’t think about that at all. Not even for a little bit. I’m focused on the game.”

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Milwaukee Bucks to ‘continue to fight for better’ after Kyle Rittenhouse found not guilty in Kenosha protest shootings

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MILWAUKEE — Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said the organization would “continue to fight for better” in the aftermath of a jury’s verdict Friday that Kyle Rittenhouse, who fatally shot two men and wounded another during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year, was acquitted of all charges.

The Bucks performed a wildcat strike during the NBA’s playoff bubble in Orlando, Florida, days after a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in August 2020 and one day after Rittenhouse shot three people in the protests over police violence that followed.

The Bucks met as a team ahead of Friday’s 96-89 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, and while Milwaukee forward Khris Middleton didn’t want to go into details about the team’s conversation, he said they never discussed not taking the court Friday.

“We talked about [the verdict] a little bit as a team,” Middleton said after Friday’s game. “Speaking for myself, it was definitely disappointing, but at the same time, it really wasn’t surprising about the verdict. I watched [the trial] a little bit and was able to keep up with it, but it’s something that I think we’ve all seen over and over again.”

Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant appeared to share Middleton’s opinion, tweeting, “not surprised at all.” Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet also said he wasn’t surprised but added that he didn’t want Friday’s verdict to be discouraging either.

“I think that we’ve got to continue to use the tools that we have at our disposal,” VanVleet said. “I think that things are changing and they will continue to change, but we can’t lose sight, we can’t lose focus, we can’t lose hope.”

Rittenhouse had been charged with homicide, attempted homicide and reckless endangering after killing Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and wounding Gaige Grosskreutz, now 28, with an AR-style semi-automatic rifle during a tumultuous night of protests.

Rittenhouse — who is white, as were those he shot — pleaded self-defense. He could have gotten life in prison if found guilty on the most serious charge, first-degree intentional homicide, or what some other states define as first-degree murder.

The anonymous jury, whose racial makeup was not disclosed by the court but appeared to be overwhelmingly white, deliberated for close to 3½ days.

“The System Is Broken,” Minnesota‘s Karl-Anthony Towns tweeted.

In January, the Bucks and Detroit Pistons each knelt on the court for seven seconds after tipoff and then rolled the ball out of bounds, following a decision by a Wisconsin prosecutor to not file charges against Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey for shooting Blake. The number of seconds matched the number of times Blake was shot.

“Still trying to push for better in our country,” Budenholzer said before Friday’s game. “Hoping for improvement. Organizationally, just continue to fight for social justice, for better. But at the same time, have to abide by the jury and the decision and the verdict and continue to fight for better.”

Budenholzer’s comments pushing for better were echoed by coaches around the league Friday.

Protestors gathered outside of Barclays Center in Brooklyn surrounding Friday’s game between the Nets and Orlando Magic.

“Clearly these situations are disappointing, and it’s important to not become demoralized and for people to continue to fight for the type of justice and equality that serves all,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “While I think it raises a lot of eyebrows, questions, a lot of pain, we recognize there has to be a path forward.

“It can’t be, ‘Well, this is just the way it is,’ and so I think the movement that we’ve experienced, one way or the other, is pushing change. Even if you can’t see that change on a daily basis or even year by year, over the course of time, without that type of attention and willpower to come together and fight for a brighter future, I think there would be no change, and it’s paramount in the seeds of change. So I think these are always opportunities for us to look in the mirror.”

Warriors coach Steve Kerr voiced his concerns about gun laws before Golden State’s game in Detroit on Friday.

Rittenhouse, who was 17 when he went from his home in Antioch, Illinois, to Kenosha, had also been charged with possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18, a misdemeanor that had appeared likely to lead to a conviction. But the judge threw out that charge before jury deliberations after the defense argued that the Wisconsin law did not apply to the long-barreled rifle used by Rittenhouse.

“The fact that we are seemingly OK with a teenager’s right to take an AR-15 into an area where there is civil unrest, that’s really scary and concerning,” Kerr said. “This is where we are with gun laws. This is why we have to have safer gun laws in place to protect ourselves, to protect each other.

“It wasn’t a shocking verdict, but one that poses great risk going forward if we continue to go down this path of open carry and states determining that people can carry, even underage people, weapons of war. This is America. Treading down a dangerous path.”

National Basketball Social Justice Coalition executive director James Cadogan released a statement saying the organization “remains committed” to protecting the right to peaceful protest and that “any forms of vigilantism in our society are unacceptable.”

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Ohm Youngmisuk and The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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Lakers fall below .500 in LeBron James’ return from injury

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BOSTON — LeBron James‘ return from an extended absence couldn’t cure the inconsistent play that has plagued his team on both ends and was on full display in the Lakers130-108 loss to the Celtics on Friday.

The defeat dropped Los Angeles — one of the oddsmakers’ favorites to win the championship — to 8-9 with more than a fifth of the season in the books.

“It’s never, ‘We got 65 games left,'” James said when asked if he can take the long view considering the Lakers’ early injuries and how much of the 82-game regular-season slate remains. “We damn sure need to play better, no matter who is in the lineup. We have our system and we need to obviously fast-track it and get better with it so we can play, no matter who is out on the floor, we can play at a high level. … There’s no level of panic, but there should be some sense of urgency any time we take the floor.”

James played for the first time in 2½ weeks because of an abdomen strain and showed signs of his old self, registering 23 points on 10-for-16 shooting, six rebounds, two assists and two steals, but only three of his shot attempts came in the paint, which could be seen as a sign of the caution the 19-year veteran played with, dealing with his third significant injury in the past four seasons.

“Physically I felt OK and good enough to know that I can trust my body and get out and play tonight,” James said. “So I’m more looking forward to seeing how I’m feeling tomorrow when I wake up. That is the telltale sign if I’m moving in the right direction with my injury.”

Who knows what direction the Lakers are headed, however.

Boston outrebounded Los Angeles 51-33 despite starting center Robert Williams III (averaging a team-best 9.2 rebounds per game) out of the lineup.

“I mean … rebound,” said Russell Westbrook. “Ain’t too much you can do about it. Just go get the ball … simple as that.”

The Lakers, who led by as many as 14 in the first half, saw their third-quarter woes continue, with the Celtics breaking things open with a 33-21 quarter out of the break.

“We have to get committed to playing as a team offensively,” said Lakers coach Frank Vogel. “And when we do, like we saw in the first quarter, it looks beautiful and you see the potential of what we can be. But we got into holding the ball too much and not playing for each other enough. But that’s part of learning each other and building that cohesiveness and the right habits. And then defensively, guys are going to have big roles if they commit to the defensive side. And if they don’t, they’re not. It’s that simple.”

The 130 points by Boston were the most the Lakers have allowed all season.

“We can go out and compete every night, but I don’t think it’s our offense. I think it’s our defense, honestly,” said Anthony Davis, who led the Lakers with 31 points. “We’ve just got to do a better job on the defensive end.”

For Westbrook, who was outperformed by the point guard he was brought in to replace, Dennis Schroder — as the Boston guard had 21 points, six assists and six rebounds to Westbrook’s 12, six and four — there was an element of déjà vu. It was another frustrating night for him and his new team as they try to come together.

“I think the reality of it is everybody on the outside have really high expectations of our team, as they should,” Westbrook said. “But the reality of it is we haven’t really played with each other realistically, and nobody cares and everybody asks the same question, and I’m tired of giving the same answer to the same question every time we lose.

“It’s like, ‘Hey, how long do you think it’s going to take?’ We don’t know. When we win, it’s still going to take some time. So the reality of it is, throughout the season, there’s going to be ups, there’s going to be downs. It’s now what you do as a team. You can pull apart, or you can come together and figure it out.”

The Lakers are still without Kendrick Nunn (right knee) and Trevor Ariza (right ankle), who have both yet to appear in a game this season. And rookie swingman Austin Reaves continues to be sidelined with a hamstring strain.

James said he would like to see the team settle on a consistent look — either going big, with DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard getting the lion’s share of the minutes at center, or small, with Davis at the 5 — and sticking to it.

He also doesn’t want the team to run from its struggles.

“It’s never as bad as it may seem, and it’s never as good as it may feel,” James said. “So I stay even-keeled throughout the whole journey. I understand this is a huge [undertaking]. It’s a process for us. And I’ve always felt comfortable when things are uncomfortable, so I look forward to the process of us trying to get better.

“And us getting better. Not trying. We will get better. We will improve.”

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Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic nursing sprained wrist, out Friday vs. Chicago Bulls

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DENVER — The Denver Nuggets were without reigning MVP Nikola Jokic on Friday night against the Chicago Bulls because of a sprained right wrist.

Jokic, who sat courtside with his wrist in a brace, appeared to be hurt the night before in a home loss to Philadelphia. Coach Michael Malone said he didn’t believe the injury would sideline Jokic for long, but had no timetable for his return.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a long-term thing at all, but at the same time, I don’t want to put him out there if he can only play with one hand,” Malone said. “Unfair to ask him to do that. When he’s ready to play, he’ll play. That could be against Phoenix, that could be in a week. There’s no timeline at this point.”

Jokic is having another MVP-caliber season, averaging 26.4 points, 13.6 rebounds and 6.4 assists for the Nuggets, who travel to Phoenix to play the Suns on Sunday.

This was the second game Jokic has missed this season. He was out in a win over Indiana on Nov. 10 as he served a one-game suspension for his role in a fracas with Miami’s Markieff Morris.

The Nuggets, who were also without Jamal Murray (knee) and Michael Porter Jr. (back), lost 114-108 to the Bulls.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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