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Russell Westbrook sparks rally in second half, but Los Angeles Lakers fall short

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NEW YORK — Russell Westbrook was tremendous in the second half of the Los Angeles Lakers‘ 106-100 loss to the New York Knicks, scoring 25 of his game-high 31 points after the break to help get his team back into a game in which it trailed by as many as 25 points in the first half.

The thing is, L.A. had to claw back from that deficit in part because of Westbrook’s first-half play. He had six points on 1-for-5 shooting and five turnovers before the break.

“He just clicks,” Anthony Davis said of Westbrook’s midgame adjustments. “I don’t know if he sees a matchup he likes, or someone’s talking to him on the other team, or a fan. I’m not sure. But whatever it is, we just need that the entire game because it helps us.”

Westbrook got locked in during the third quarter, scoring 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting with three assists, two rebounds, two steals and just one turnover. The Lakers outscored the Knicks by 10 in the period.

He played well in the fourth, too, scoring seven points on 2-for-3 shooting with three rebounds and two assists, but it was a different story for the rest of the team. The Lakers shot 5-for-19 from the field (2-for-11 from 3) and couldn’t complete the comeback, with the Knicks edging them 23-19 in the fourth to hold on for the win.

Avery Bradley (15 points, 9 rebounds, 2 steals) said the late-game flameout came because of all the energy the team had to expend digging out of its early hole.

“We were fighting and scrapping to get back into the game,” Bradley said. “I feel like if we do a better job executing our game plan at the beginning, we won’t be in that position and we’ll be able to execute down the stretch.”

Westbrook finished with 31 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists for his fourth triple-double of the season, but he also had six turnovers. He came into the game averaging 4.9 turnovers, which was second worst in the league, trailing only the Brooklyn Nets’ James Harden (5.0).

Westbrook took exception to a line of questioning about his turnovers after the game.

“It’s funny you mention turnovers,” he said. “I haven’t heard you ask me that question in about five games. You know why?”

Indeed in the four games before Tuesday night’s loss, Westbrook had 12 total turnovers. In the four games before that, he had a total of 27 turnovers.

“It’s funny,” Westbrook said after feigning laughter. “You guys are funny, man. It’s just making easy reads. I had five [turnovers] in the first half, I had one in the second. So I know I made an adjustment and did a good job of picking my spots and being aggressive and looking to score instead of jumping in the air and making passes.

“So, like I said, it’s an easy fix for me. And I know when I’m making those mistakes and making those turnovers. I mean, the one I stepped out of bounds and I got one before the half. So three of them are kind of like, if you’re actually watching the game, you kind of would be like, ‘Well, OK, that’s different.’ Three of them I kind of threw away. So, I’ll take those three. But other than that, I’ll be fine.”

Davis believes that part of Westbrook’s early woes came from him looking to force feed teammates.

“Russ has to continue to do what he’s doing no matter who’s on the floor. To be himself,” Davis said. “I tell him before every game: ‘Be nobody but yourself. That’s why we brought you here.’ I think a lot of times, he tries to go passive and to start passing the basketball, looking for other guys, which is great, but kind of takes him out of a rhythm. And he can do the same for guys while being aggressive.”

Westbrook offered a similar assessment.

“I thought I didn’t be super aggressive in the first half and tried to find my reads,” he said. “And in the third, we needed to have a push offensively and tried to make ways to be aggressive.”

The loss dropped L.A. to 9-10. Westbrook will have further adjustments to make when the Lakers finish their five-game road trip in Indianapolis and LeBron James returns from his one-game suspension.

Westbrook and James have played only eight games together this season, with L.A. going 5-3, including Sunday’s comeback in Detroit that was sparked by Westbrook after James was ejected.

“We’re finding ways where he’s really comfortable and trying to minimize ways where he’s been getting himself in trouble,” said Lakers coach Frank Vogel. “And I think that’s all part of the integration process, that there’s going to be some growing pains early. But we’re figuring it out and he’s bringing great competitive spirit in the absence of ‘Bron when we’re shorthanded and really willed us to the victory in Detroit and almost did the same tonight. We just fell short.”

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DeMar DeRozan, shorthanded Chicago Bulls hand Brooklyn Nets ‘bad, tough loss’

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NEW YORK — With DeMar DeRozan drawing James Harden and Kevin Durant with him on a drive into the paint, Lonzo Ball was all alone on the right wing as he launched a 3, crouched in anticipation and then turned toward courtside fans behind him after drilling a late dagger against the Brooklyn Nets.

Down four rotation players due to health and injuries, the Chicago Bulls continued their surprising start to the season by erasing an 11-point third-quarter deficit to give the Nets a stinging 111-107 loss at Barclays Center on Saturday night.

The Bulls (16-8) have won three straight games and leave New York having beaten the Knicks at Madison Square Garden and the Nets at Barclays Center on this road trip. This is also the second time this season that the Bulls outplayed the preseason favorite to win the Eastern Conference in the fourth quarter to hand the Nets a bitter loss, clinching the season series between the two teams.

“You want to be the best, you got to beat the best,” said DeRozan, who picked the Nets apart with 13 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter. “Everybody talks about being best but you got to go out there. No matter if you are shorthanded, you want to be the best, you got to go out there and compete against the best.”

The Bulls entered the game shorthanded with Javonte Green and Coby White in health and safety protocols after testing positive for COVID-19. With Patrick Williams (left wrist) already out, the Bulls started Alex Caruso at power forward but he was later ruled out due to a hamstring injury that was bothering him entering the game. Bulls coach Billy Donovan said it was a medical decision to pull Caruso and that he did not know how long Caruso might be sidelined.

The Nets (16-7) looked at this game as a big test for them. They were shorthanded themselves with Joe Harris (ankle) and James Johnson (shoulder) out to go along with Kyrie Irving, who is not with the team. But they were looking to settle a score after losing, 118-95, in Chicago on Nov. 8 and get a quality win over one of the top teams in the conference.

Brooklyn led 71-60 with 6:34 left in the third and appeared to be in control. But that cushion was gone by the 9:28 mark in the fourth. Durant scored nine of his 28 points in the fourth quarter but Harden struggled with his shot, missing 5-of-6 shots in the fourth. The Nets defense allowed Chicago to shoot 52.2% in the fourth quarter. Chicago also enjoyed a 27-to-9 advantage in free-throw attempts for the game.

“We just gotta go out there and play with some force and confidence, like we want to win,” Durant said. “And understand it’s a long game, and just stick with the game plan. It’s a bad, it’s a tough loss. … We didn’t take advantage of being up nine-10 points. We just let them stay in the game and we were supposed to just bury them.”

Harden, who recently admitted he is having difficulty finding balance between being more of a playmaker versus when to be a scorer with Irving not playing, shot just 5-of-21 overall before finishing with 14 points, 14 assists and seven rebounds.

“Blame this one on me,” said Harden. “I had a lot of opportunities at the rim that I didn’t convert that could have settled this game down.”

Durant said he should’ve helped Harden more by making more shots.

“That would’ve took pressure off of him,” Durant said.

At the end, the Nets watched another struggling shooter make the game’s biggest shot. After Durant cut the deficit to 107-105 with a 3-pointer, DeRozan drove and drew Harden and Durant with him in the paint. DeRozan found Ball alone on the right wing and the point guard delivered the dagger 3, just his second of the game. Ball finished 3-for-10 overall and just 2-for-7 from behind the arc.

Ball — who had eight points, nine rebounds, seven assists and three blocks against the Nets — also missed 8-of-10 3-point shots in Thursday’s win over the Knicks. But the Bulls continue to develop chemistry and trust in one another as they moved to within half a game of the Nets for the lead in the East.

“It says a lot about our team,” DeRozan said of the wins against the Knicks and Nets. “How resilient. How we approach challenges. We don’t shy away from them. We accept them.

“… It is difficult to win in this league, especially coming into two hostile environments on the road, playing against two teams and the best team in our conference, to withstand the blow that we took from them throughout the whole game, to buckle down in the fourth quarter and pull out a victory.”

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

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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

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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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