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New York Knicks searching for identity amid 3-game skid

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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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Los Angeles Lakers star Russell Westbrook benched late in loss; coach Frank Vogel had green light, sources say

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LOS ANGELES — Long before Russell Westbrook was benched down the stretch of Wednesday’s 111-104 loss to the Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers coach Frank Vogel was given assurances that the organization would support him in taking a hard line while coaching the star, sources told ESPN.

Over the past week and a half, Lakers management has told the coaching staff to coach Westbrook as they see fit, even if that means pulling him from a game, as Vogel did for the final 3 minutes, 52 seconds of the fourth quarter against Indiana, sources told ESPN.

One source close to the situation described the message from management to the staff as, “You got to do what you got to do.”

Westbrook was 5-for-17 from the field when Vogel put in Malik Monk for him with L.A. trailing 101-94.

Apart from his offensive struggles, Westbrook failed to execute on the defensive end. The final straw, pushing the staff to honor their instinct to bench him, was when Caris LeVert blew by Westbrook on defense for a layup with 7 minutes, 13 seconds remaining.

The coaching staff had repeatedly emphasized the scouting report to take away LeVert’s right hand, and Westbrook, guarding LeVert at the top of the key one-on-one, didn’t angle himself properly to thwart the drive and allowed LeVert easy access to the paint en route to the hoop.

Asked what was behind his decision to bench Westbrook, the normally measured Vogel responded with a matter-of-fact edge.

“Playing the guys that I thought were going to win the game,” he said.

Vogel’s job has been in jeopardy since L.A. was blown out by 37 points at the Denver Nuggets over the weekend, according to various reports.

The coaching staff had been debating whether to pull Westbrook from late-game situations for weeks, sources said, but always refrained because of worries about the lasting impact on Westbrook’s psyche.

Indeed, even LeBron James danced around the subject of Westbrook’s benching, perhaps not wanting to draw further attention to the indignity for the former league MVP.

“Would you think that would bother Russ not being in a late game?” he said, answering a reporter’s question with a question, rather than giving a straight answer.

James was left to speak on Westbrook because the 14-year veteran — who exited the court with 8.4 seconds remaining on the clock — departed from the arena without speaking to reporters.

Westbrook also had already vacated the locker room by the time his teammates were finished showering, sources said, forgoing any postgame discussion with the team.

“I don’t think it’s nothing personal,” said Lakers forward Carmelo Anthony, who recently said that he can relate to the role adjustment Westbrook is going through this season, having done it himself a few years back. “It’s just something that he’s not used to. You would think somebody like that would be on the court. But with the flow of the game, there’s been times I haven’t been in the game or other guys haven’t been in the game. So I don’t think it’s anything personal.”

Not personal, but certainly critical. The Lakers, about to embark on a six-game road trip and sitting at No. 8 in the Western Conference at 22-23, can ill afford to lose any more time prioritizing Westbrook’s comfort over the team’s chance at success.

“It’s just something that Russ has got to … ,” Anthony said before correcting himself mid-sentence, “We gotta help him figure it out.”

“It’s frustrating. I can tell you that,” he continued. “It’s frustrating as a player who’s trying to make it right, trying to do things right. This is new for him. This is a new situation. This is a new environment. We got to help him through it. I mean, that’s the only thing we can do, is make sure his mental is right. That’s the only thing I care about. I don’t care about any basketball stuff when it comes to Russ.

“As long as his mental is right, then I’m good.”

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Nikola Jokic has 49-point triple-double as Denver Nuggets edge LA Clippers in OT

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DENVER — Nikola Jokic had 49 points, 14 rebounds and fed Aaron Gordon for a tiebreaking 3-pointer with 1.9 seconds left in overtime for his 10th assist, giving the Denver Nuggets a 130-128 victory over the LA Clippers on Wednesday night.

Jokic drew a double-team, then whipped a pass across the court into the left corner. Gordon made his fourth 3 of the game to give him 28 points and Jokic his third straight triple-double and 10th of the season.

Nuggets reserve Davon Reed came onto the floor after the Gordon basket and received a technical foul. After Luke Kennard hit the free throw, Reggie Jackson‘s long 3-pointer bounced off the glass and rim at the buzzer.

Monte Morris added 19 points, nine rebounds and nine assists as the Nuggets won for the third time in four games.

Ivica Zubac had a career-high 32 points and added 10 rebounds. Jackson had 28 points and 12 assists as the Clippers lost their second straight to kick off an NBA season-high, eight-game road trip.

A week after blowing a 25-point lead in the third quarter of a loss in Los Angeles, the Nuggets got their revenge by holding the Clippers without a field goal for 7 1/2 minutes in the third quarter while erasing a 15-point deficit.

It led to a frantic finish. After Will Barton‘s driving layup with 26 seconds left in regulation tied it for the Nuggets, the Clippers couldn’t get a shot off before the 24-second clock expired. But Jokic’s fadeaway at the buzzer was an air ball.

Jokic got an assist from his coach that might have kept him around for the finish.

His follow shot tied the game at 72 with 4:40 left in the third, but he immediately picked up a technical foul for barking at the referee under the basket. He began to charge at the official, but Michael Malone ran onto the court, restrained Jokic and he avoided a second technical.

Jokic, who has complained that he doesn’t get enough foul calls for much of the season, stayed in the game and finished 14 of 16 from the foul line.

The Nuggets played hours after making official the three-way trade in which they acquired shooting guard Bryn Forbes from San Antonio. Injured players Bol Bol and P.J. Dozier went to Boston in the deal.

Dozier, a career 41.3% 3-point shooter, will give Denver needed outside shooting. He could play as soon as Friday.

The Nuggets needed him in the second quarter, when their maligned bench was on the floor at the start of the Clippers’ 21-2 run. The spurt continued when the starters returned, as Jokic missed his first six shots of the period before his bucket cut it to 59-47 at halftime.

The Clippers frustrated Jokic last week with constant double-teams. This time, Zubac went at him defensively, hitting 15 of 19 shots. Zubac avoided fouling out with 1:02 left in regulation when the Clippers won a replay challenge. Zubac had been called for a foul on Jokic. The Nuggets won the ensuing jump ball and Jokic’s driving layup tied it.

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Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving says pressure ‘brings out the best’ in him amid Kevin Durant’s absence

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WASHINGTON — Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving says he is embracing the pressure that comes with trying to carry the team’s offense amid Kevin Durant‘s absence due to a left knee injury.

“I like the pressure,” Irving said after scoring 30 points in 38 minutes during a 119-118 win over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday night. “I love pressure. It brings out the best in me personally. And then also I’m able to carry that energy with the team whether it be communicating with guys in short conversations on the floor or off the floor.

“Just trying to demand a responsibility from all of us, from myself first, but from all of us, that this isn’t going to be perfect. It’s not going to ever look perfect. This is just what we have, and we can’t replace anybody that’s out. But what we can do is fill up the stat sheet with the little things that may show up and things that may not show up. We’ll see where we are at the end of the game when we leave it all out there playing hard.”

Durant injured his knee in Saturday’s win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Although the Nets haven’t announced an official timeline for his return, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that there is optimism within the organization that the star forward only will be sidelined 4-6 weeks.

Irving is unvaccinated against COVID-19, meaning he can’t play in home games due to a mandate in New York City. After Irving was away from the team for almost three months, the Nets reversed course last month to allow him to participate in road games.

Wednesday marked the two-week anniversary of his return, and the star point guard said he is enjoying being back around the group and performing.

“It feels incredible,” Irving said. “I don’t take one day for granted. I thank God every day I get this opportunity, not only to play basketball, but just to be around great individuals, and we grow together just in this space and then when we leave here from this arena we are all away from our families, we’re on the road, and we have a mission that we’re all trying to be in front of mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally and just stay even-keeled.

“I know it’s difficult at times, not only for just me, but for everyone else, just the monotony coming in every single day working on [our games], but this is what we signed up for when we were playing in fifth grade, fourth grade, this was the dream right here. Just getting on the road and trying to win some ballgames and play at a high level.”

Nets coach Steve Nash never seemed concerned that Irving would try to take on too much offensive responsibility in Durant’s absence. He called the point guard’s play on Wednesday “brilliant.”

“I think Ky’s really trying to fit into the group and trying to get his rhythm back,” Nash said prior to the game. “Obviously you see moments where he’s outstanding and looks like he’s never left and there’s other moments where you’re like, ‘It’s a brand-new guy, playing with a bunch of guys he hasn’t played with,’ so that takes time as well. I don’t think he’s putting too much pressure on himself. We want him to be free.

“We want him to have this period where he cannot overburden himself to have to score or to have to do too much, just to feel his way into it. He helps our team regardless of if he’s trying to get 40 a night or he’s just trying to fit in. He’s just such a good player and such a compliment to our group.”

Veteran center LaMarcus Aldridge summed up Irving’s two week stretch in one word.

“Fun,” he said. “[He] knows the game. Plays the game the right way. Gets me so many midrange shots where the [defender’s] not even close to me. I played the most with him last year, I was there five games, and my five games were more with him than anyone. So I feel like our chemistry kind of came in those five games. I feel like this year we kind of picked up where we left off — he makes plays where you’re looking and you’re just like, ‘Man, you’re glad he’s on your team.’ Tonight he had some spins and some hesitations and some floaters, I’m just like, ‘Goddang.” So it’s been fun for me to have him back, just fun to watch him play.”

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