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Milwaukee Bucks stomp Golden State Warriors, keep ‘building good habits’ vs. elite teams

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MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Bucks delivered another statement win on Thursday night with a 118-99 thumping of the Golden State Warriors, continuing their trend of being at their best this season when matched up against other likely title contenders.

The Bucks blitzed the Warriors from the start, jumping out to a 39-point halftime lead, Golden State’s largest halftime deficit since the franchise moved from Philadelphia.

In the past week, the Bucks have won handily against the Warriors and Brooklyn Nets —who they also beat on opening night in Milwaukee — a pair of teams they could see on the path to attempt to repeat as NBA champions.

“I don’t know why we play well in big games, but at the end of the day we’ve got to just keep building good habits moving forward,” said Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finished with 30 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists in 30 minutes. “Big games with big excitement or even games nobody watches, nobody cares about, we have to keep building good habits, so we can be good in May and June.”

Milwaukee had coach Mike Budenholzer back on the sidelines after clearing health and safety protocols but was playing without guard Jrue Holiday, their best perimeter defender, who missed his fourth straight game with an ankle. Still, the Bucks were able to contain Warriors star Stephen Curry with a smothering defensive effort.

Curry finished 4 of 11 shooting in the game (2 for 6 from 3) for 12 points. He has shot less than 50% from the field in eight consecutive games, the longest streak of his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Golden State finished 3-for-14 from the field with three turnovers and seven points when the Bucks sent a double team at Curry.

“Milwaukee is a good team. They obviously have championship DNA now,” Curry said, “and present some challenges in terms of putting pressure on the interior end and spacing. We just got off to a terrible start where everything went wrong.”

The Warriors have dropped four of their past five games overall and Curry is mired in one of the worst shooting slumps of his career, but they were not panicking about their recent skid.

“To be honest, I’m not that concerned,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game. “I know we just got our butts kicked. We’re just in a rough patch in our season. Happens to every team, every year pretty much, with very few exceptions. We’re in a little bit of a rut. We played a team that was ready and played great … And so we’re a little out of sorts, and we just got to get back on track.”

Golden State will play the Bulls in the second half of a back-to-back on Friday night in Chicago. Klay Thompson, who scored 11 points on 3 of 11 shooting in 21 minutes, is not expected to play as the Warriors ease him back into action after missing more than two years because of injuries.

The Bucks, meanwhile, have continued to roll against some of the stiffest competition in the league because of dominant performances by Antetokounmpo.

On Thursday, Antetokounmpo finished a perfect 9-for-9 inside the restricted area with four dunks. He scored on four different primary defenders, (including 4-for-4 against Andre Iguodala) and hit all seven of his wide-open shots. Even when the Warriors forced him into a pass, he routinely made the right read — the Bucks shot 11 of 16 (30 points) off Antetokounmpo’s passes, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.

“My mindset is, I have something I’m going to take it. I’m not going to second guess it,” Antetokounmpo said. “If somebody is wide open I’m going to try and deliver that ball to him. If I cannot, I’m going to see what’s next. I always try to be in the moment. But having an assertive mindset, an aggressive mindset, that’s how I start the game. That’s what I think in every possession.”

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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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‘Unbelievable from the start,’ Joel Embiid scores 50 points in 27 minutes as Philadelphia 76ers win

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PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid tied his career high with 50 points in just 27 minutes, leading a dominant third quarter that carried the Philadelphia 76ers to a 123-110 victory over the Orlando Magic on Wednesday night.

Embiid also had 12 rebounds and three blocks while making 17 of 23 field goals and 15 of 17 free throws. The four-time All-Star and MVP candidate played just 58 seconds of the fourth quarter.

“My teammates just found me,” Embiid said. “And I did the rest.”

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Embiid’s 27:03 of game time ranks second lowest in a 50-point game in the shot-clock era. Golden State Warriors star Klay Thompson had 52 points on Oct. 29, 2018, in 26:33 of game time.

Tobias Harris added 21 points for the 76ers, who have won nine of 11. Philadelphia began play sixth in the East but just 2½ games out of the top spot.

Mo Bamba set career highs with 32 points and seven 3-pointers for Orlando. The rebuilding Magic dropped to an NBA-worst 8-38 with their third straight loss and 13th defeat in the past 14 games.

Philadelphia was booed off the court at halftime, trailing 57-47. But the 76ers came out of the break with 17-6 run over the first 5:05 to jump in front 64-63. Embiid finally got some help from his teammates during the spurt, as Tyrese Maxey drained a pair of 3-pointers.

Before the game, 76ers coach Doc Rivers was asked about potential additions to the roster with the NBA trade deadline approaching. Then, his best player gave any potential new teammates a glimpse of what they might join.

“You need playmakers in the playoffs, you just do,” Rivers said. “You need guys who are going to make plays for themselves and others. And the more you have, the better team you have, the better chance you have.”

Embiid, who’s now averaging 28 points per game, took care of that on his own Wednesday. He scored in a variety of ways in a breathtaking third quarter that matched his similarly stellar first quarter. He was serenaded with “M-V-P” chants on two trips to the free throw line in the period, and brought the fans roaring to their feet when he made a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left in the quarter that gave Philadelphia a 92-80 lead, its largest to that point.

It also gave Embiid 47 points for the night and 23 in the third quarter alone, a period in which he shot 8-for-10 from the field. The star center opened the contest by draining 8 of 10 shots in a 20-point first quarter that helped the 76ers to a 25-21 advantage.

“I played with [Basketball Hall of Famer] Dominique [Wilkins], and I don’t know if I’ve seen that. I’ve seen Dominique score more, but it took the whole game,” Rivers said. “That was easy, quick, efficient and determined.”

Jesse Mermuys, Orlando’s acting head coach who is filling in while Jamahl Mosley remains in the NBA’s health and safety protocols, concurred.

“With the way he was playing, there was really no way to go get him,” Mermuys said. “He hit fadeaways, stepbacks. I mean, he was impressive.”

Embiid reentered with 7:23 left in the fourth and quickly got to 49 points with a pair of free throws 15 seconds later. Then, Embiid was fouled by Bamba, who fouled out on the play, with 6:26 left. With the crowd standing and recording the moment on cell phones, Embiid made the first free throw to reach 50 points before misfiring on the second. Rivers quickly subbed him out to loud cheers.

“It’s all about playing the right way. The ball is always going to find me,” Embiid said, reiterating his previous comments. “These guys have a hell of a lot of trust in me, and they’re always looking for me.

“And it doesn’t matter when. In any time of the game, the ball is going to find me.”

Embiid was dominant in the first quarter but the rest of the 76ers combined for just five points on 2-for-11 shooting. And it caught up to them in the second quarter. The Magic closed within 38-37 while Embiid rested for the first 5:20 of the period, then scored 11 of the final 14 points to open a 10-point advantage after he went to the bench with three fouls with 3:07 remaining.

“It was a heck of a performance by him. You have to tip your hat,” Mermuys said. “In this league, there are great players who have great performances.”

Bamba finished with 28 points and made 7 of 8 3-pointers in the opening half, easily bettering his previous career highs in scoring (22 points) and made 3-pointers (5).

But in the end, the night belonged to Embiid.

“He was unbelievable,” Rivers said, “from the start.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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