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NBA’s tampering probe into Lonzo Ball, Kyle Lowry acquisitions in advanced stages



The NBA’s probe into possible pre-free agency tampering centered on the sign-and-trade acquisitions of Chicago’s Lonzo Ball and Miami’s Kyle Lowry appears to have reached the advanced stages, sources told ESPN on Friday.

The NBA has conducted numerous interviews with team executives and player agents and have gathered electronic messaging of front office executives of four teams — Chicago, New Orleans, Miami and Toronto — over the past three months, sources said. The league could reveal its findings and any penalties in the near future.

ESPN reported on August 7 about the opening of the league’s investigation into whether illegal contact and negotiation occurred among teams and agents ahead of the opening of free agency on August 2 at 6 p.m. ET.

The NBA instituted more stringent penalties in these cases in 2019, including raising the maximum fine for teams to $10 million and including the possibility of suspending team executives, forfeiting draft picks and even the voiding of contracts. The possibility of the contracts being voided is the least likely scenario if punishment is rendered.

Sign-and-trade arrangements are more complicated and time-consuming than typical free agent player signings, often needing a greater level of discussion and negotiation time to complete.

New Orleans agreed to trade Ball, a restricted free agent, to Chicago on a four-year, $80 million contract for Garrett Temple on a new, three-year, $15.5 million contract for guard Tomas Satoransky. Miami negotiated a three-year, $85 million deal with Lowry in the sign-and-trade that sent guard Goran Dragic and forward Precious Achiuwa to the Raptors.

The Heat guaranteed Dragic’s $19.4 million team option on Sunday, which allowed them to use him in the sign-and-trade deal.

The Milwaukee Bucks lost a 2022 second-round pick for tampering charges with Sacramento restricted free agent Bogdan Bogdanovic in 2021. With the penalty, the NBA took into consideration that the Bucks did not ultimately acquire Bogdanovic as he eventually signed with the Atlanta Hawks.

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Chicago Bulls’ Javonte Green tests positive for COVID-19, joins Coby White in protocols



The Chicago Bulls, who played the Hornets on Monday, saw Javonte Green test positive for COVID-19 on Friday, following Coby White earlier this week.

Charlotte had four players enter health and safety protocols on Saturday.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan said before his team faced the Nets in Brooklyn Saturday night that Green had driven back to Chicago on Friday, and was feeling all right. He added that Chicago expects to continue daily testing in the wake of multiple positive tests, and that he anticipates the league continuing to tighten its protocols as time goes by.

“I think that’s happening,” Donovan said of the protocols getting stricter. “I don’t think there’s any question that’s happening. I think there’s going to be, my guess would be, stricter policies than there have been this year. To your point, I think Thanksgiving and you’re dealing with Christmas and then New Year’s … people are going to be around family. I think that the way it’s moving right now is it’s getting a little more stricter.

“Certainly for us right now it’s a lot stricter because we’ve got two players who are positive.”

Donovan also praised his players for how they’ve handled the twists and turns of the situation over the past several days.

“Well, we’re not the only ones dealing with it,” Donovan said, “but the only guys I can respond to our our guys, and our guys have been class acts, totally professional. I think they’ve handled whatever has come their way. We’re not the only team that’s dealing with it, that’s had to deal with it.

“I think there was obviously some hope and some optimism we kind of passed this going into the season. That certainly hasn’t happened. But our guys have handled it, and the whole thing about you have to control what you can control. There’s a lot of inconveniences, things can get frustrating and annoying and you worry about are you infected or are you healthy, and you’ve got a couple teammates and guys on the team who have tested positive, so I’m sure some of that stuff goes through those guys’ minds.”

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Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo to miss second game with calf soreness



Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo will miss Saturday’s game against the Miami Heat with right calf soreness, coach Mike Budenholzer announced before the game.

It’s the second straight game Antetokounmpo has been sidelined because of the injury, which kept him out of the second half of a back-to-back on Thursday in Toronto. Budenholzer said then he was hopeful this would be just a short-term issue.

“We’ll just take it day by day,” Budenholzer said Saturday. “See how it goes”

The Bucks’ roster has been hampered by injuries and illnesses since the start of the season, but they had won eight of their past nine games entering Saturday to storm back into the mix at the top of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

In 21 games this season, Antetokounmpo is averaging 27.6 points and 11.8 rebounds while collecting a career-high 6.0 assists and 1.7 blocks.

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New York Knicks searching for identity amid 3-game skid



NEW YORK — After the New York Knicks lost a third straight game and for the fourth time in their last five against the Denver Nuggets Saturday afternoon, All-Star forward Julius Randle said it’s up to him and his teammates to decide what kind of season they want to have.

“I have to be better. Everybody has to be better,” Randle said after New York’s 113-99 loss to Denver, a deceiving scoreline from a game that saw the Knicks trail by 30 with eight minutes to go. “I’ll take responsibility for the team. I’ll take responsibility for myself. That doesn’t bother me. At the end of the day, I just wanna win. I think everybody … well, I know everybody in that locker room wants to win, too.

“We gotta look ourselves in the mirror and decide what we want the season to be. I know what I want it to be. I know what the guys want it to be. But we have to commit to it, and that’s just really what it is.”

Last season, New York was one of the NBA’s biggest surprises in Tom Thibodeau’s first season coaching the team. Randle had a breakout season and became an All-Star for the first time, while Thibodeau won his second NBA Coach of the Year award on the back of a team that ground out wins behind an elite defense.

Both Randle and Thibodeau said Saturday that this is a different team than last season. It is certainly playing like one. New York has slipped from fourth in defense last season, to 19th after Saturday’s loss and the offense improving from 22nd last year to 15th this season hasn’t been enough to make up for that slippage.

And as Randle, Thibodeau and Knicks forward R.J. Barrett addressed the media Saturday afternoon, each — not surprisingly — harped on the defense as the thing that has to get better after Denver shot 52 percent from the field and made 20 3-pointers.

“I think just our effort,” Barrett said, when asked what it will take to fix it. “That’s really what defense is, is just effort. Thibs is a great defensive mind, so it’s really just up to us to bring that intensity and that urgency to play defense and get stops … we just gotta find it. That’s it.”

“There’s no magic to that,” Thibodeau said. “We got into it together, we’ve got to get out of it together. It’s players, coaches, everybody.

“Where does intensity come from? It comes from maximum effort and maximum concentration. That’s where it comes from. So we’ve got to do those two things.”

The only magic that happened on the court inside Madison Square Garden Saturday afternoon came from the Nuggets, and specifically center Nikola Jokic.

While his two co-stars in Denver remain out with long-term injuries — Michael Porter Jr. following back surgery, while Jamal Murray is still recovering from a torn ACL he suffered this spring — Jokic did whatever he wanted to the Knicks, finishing with 32 points, 11 rebounds and five assists.

He looked every bit the part of being the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player — a performance he mused was benefited, in part, by attending Meadowlands Racetrack Friday night to take in some harness racing.

“Actually, maybe,” he said, when asked if he was inspired by his trip to the track, adding nine drivers came to watch Saturday’s game.

“Maybe I need to go to the horses every time I travel. Maybe the front office or someone needs to check that out.”

While Denver sorts out future tracks for Jokic to potentially visit, the Knicks were left to pick up the pieces after yet another loss. While there were positives to take away from Tuesday’s loss in Brooklyn, and even from Thursday’s big comeback before losing here to the Chicago Bulls, there was nothing positive to take away from this one.

Jokic’s presence was also a reminder of something Randle readily admitted: that the Knicks cannot win games by relying on one player, like Denver can. Instead, they need to play as a collective unit, at both ends of the court.

“We’re going to win games with our defense,” said Randle, who scored 24 points to go with seven rebounds and eight assists. “That’s who we are. We’re not the superstars, three, four superstars on the team like Brooklyn or all these other teams. We’re a team. How we were last year, how we have to be this year as well, we have to win games with our defense.

“I just think we gotta understand that in order to win games we gotta play really hard, extremely hard. We gotta have game plan discipline, and we gotta win games on defense. If our offense is great, great. That’s just a bonus. But who we are as a team, how we built this team and this culture is just fighting defensively, the togetherness, just the efort, the hustle plays. I feel like that’s what the city of New York loves. That’s what the fans love — when they know we’re out there giving it our all.”

There wasn’t a lot of love coming from the New York fans Saturday, as boos rained down upon the Knicks throughout the game — and especially after New York managed to cut Denver’s lead to 69-63 early in the third quarter, only for the Nuggets to rip off a 23-3 run to blow the game open.

That allowed Jokic, who only played just 27 minutes, to sit for the entire fourth quarter. Thibodeau, however, went back to Randle and several other starters down the stretch, even with the game well in hand.

One player who didn’t see the court, however, was Kemba Walker, who has now been a healthy scratch in each of the last three games. Thibodeau said his decision to drop Walker from the rotation won’t be changing, but that if the Knicks don’t start turning things around, other changes could follow.

“The thing is, if we’re not performing well, look, there may be more changes coming,” Thibodeau said. “That’s the thing. I like our group, I like the way they approach it. We all put our stuff together. We’ve got to focus together and we’ve got to work our way out of it together. That’s the way it is.”

But while the Knicks dismissed the booing, they can’t dismiss their record, which has now dipped below .500, nor their place in the Eastern Conference standings. After Saturday’s loss, New York now sits in 11th place and one game under .500 — though that puts New York just two games out of sixth place, and one out of a three-way tie for eighth in the packed East standings.

The focus for now, however, starts internally, as the Knicks will take the next couple days to sort things out before heading to San Antonio, Indiana and Toronto for a three-game road trip starting Tuesday.

“Every team has a game or a couple games like this during the season, so [I’m] not too worried about it,” Barrett said. “Like I said, we just gotta fight. At the end of the day, all the X’s and O’s, all that doesn’t matter.

“We gotta play defense. We gotta fight and fight together for the whole game and just do whatever it takes to win.”

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