Call it gritty, ugly, whatever — Knicks win over Bucks means playoffs (probably)

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Early on Wednesday night it was all Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks offense, it was pretty. But against a feisty Bucks team you knew that wasn’t going to be enough. With these Knicks nothing comes easy. They were going to need defense. They were going to need someone to step up. They were going to need some grit.

How about a key J.R. Smith three and some big stops late with even Anthony rotating out to contest shots?

That was enough. The Knicks gutted out a hard fought 111-107 win in Milwaukee that puts them two full games up on the Bucks for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East with just eight games to play.

Nothing is set in stone yet, but it’s going to be very hard for the Bucks to make up two games in two weeks. Knicks fans can now start trying to convince themselves they have any chance against the Derrick Rose and the Bulls.

The night that ended so ugly (or scrappy, if you prefer) started out so pretty for the Knicks and their fans

On the second night of a back-to-back the Knicks came out on fire — they hit eight of their first nine shots to open the game (Tyson Chandler had seven fast points on his way to 19 points on 6-for-6 shooting). The Knicks were getting all their points going to the rim and following a 17-4 run scored 36 points (28 points in the paint) in the first quarter on 77 percent shooting. They moved the ball well and got clean looks all quarter long. They had a double-digit lead.

A lead that evaporated like a drop of water in the Sahara. The Bucks went on run right at the start of the second quarter and behind Monta Ellis, who had 21 on 12 shots in the first half, while Mike Dunleavy had 16 off the bench at the break. At the half it was 62-62.

The second half wasn’t nearly as fast paced nor did it feature great shooting. But it was close.

The game was tied at 99-99 with 3:3o left and after three points from Ekpe Udoh off the bench kept it close another three from Ellis put the Bucks up 105-103 with 1:45 left. A road loss and a possibility of missing the playoffs was looming over the Knicks. Anthony — who finished with 32 points on the night — tied it with a jumper, but then Luc Richard Mbah a Moute answered with one of his own to keep the Bucks up two.

That’s when the gutty Knicks showed up. Smith hit a three to give the Knicks the lead. Then on their possession the Bucks scrapped on the offensive boards and three shots — an Ellis eight footer, a Dunleavy three and then a Dunleavy 18-footer — and missed them all. The Knicks scrambled and contested on defense for Mike Woodson like they never did for Mike D’Antoni. It was enough. Steve Novak and Iman Shumpert hit some free throws in the final 20 seconds when the Bucks had to foul and the Knicks got the win.

It wasn’t pretty at the end, but playoff teams win ugly games. The Knicks — despite a roller coaster season, a fired coach, the coming and going of Linsanity, and Amare Stoudemire being injured down the stretch — are a playoff team. They need to close out the season like they closed out this game, but they are a playoff team. They have played like it for Woodson, it may not have been the pretty ball that they envisioned when D’Antoni was hired but it worked. They earned it.

They should celebrate it and worry about the matchups later.

Fergie says she “tried my best” after national anthem blowback

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Fergie is apologizing after trying something different with the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game.

“I’ve always been honored and proud to perform the national anthem and last night I wanted to try something special for the NBA,” the Grammy-winning singer said in a statement Monday. “I’m a risk taker artistically, but clearly this rendition didn’t strike the intended tone. I love this country and honestly tried my best.”

Fergie’s slow, bluesy rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Sunday night wasn’t particularly well received at Staples Center or on social media before the 67th edition of the NBA’s annual showcase.

A low chuckle rumbled through the sold-out arena after she finished the first line of the song with a throaty growl on “the dawn’s early light.”

Fans throughout the star-studded crowd reacted with varying levels of bemusement and enthusiasm while her languid, 2 +-minute version of the song continued. Although Fergie was on pitch, her tempo, musical accompaniment and sexy delivery were not exactly typical for a sporting event or a patriotic song.

Golden State All-Star Draymond Green captured Sunday’s mood – and became an instant GIF – when he was shown open-mouthed on the scoreboard and the television broadcast in apparent confusion over the unique vocal stylings. Green then chuckled to himself after realizing he was on TV.

After a forceful finish, Fergie finally got big cheers when she shouted, “Let’s play some basketball!”

The Black Eyed Peas singer, born Stacy Ann Ferguson, is from nearby Hacienda Heights, California.

Famed basketball commentator Charles Barkley joked that he “needed a cigarette” after Fergie’s performance during the TNT halftime show.

Former Lakers star Shaquille O’Neal leaped to Fergie’s defense, saying: “Fergie, I love you. It was different. It was sexy. I liked it. Leave her alone.”

Others on social media weren’t as kind, with criticism of the performance outpacing the positive reviews.

 

Did Lakers help keep LeBron James in Cleveland with trade?

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When the trade went down between the Lakers and Cavaliers before the deadline — sending Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to Cleveland in exchange for Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye plus Cleveland’s 2018 first-round draft pick (top-five protected) — it caught the NBA by surprise.

The first reaction for a lot of people to the deal? This opens up as much as $70 million in cap space for the Lakers this summer (depending on other moves with players such as Julius Randle). Los Angeles could sign two max players — LeBron James and Paul George. Why would Cleveland help Los Angeles open up room to steal LeBron.

The Cavaliers didn’t see it that way — they knew they had to make a major shakeup or LeBron was gone. At that point, does it matter where? So in a series of moves, Cleveland GM Koby Altman radically remade the roster around LeBron. The goal was to energize them back into being the team to beat in the East, and from there make it hard for him to leave as a free agent. Since the trades, the Cavaliers are 2-0 and LeBron has clearly been reinvigorated, plus they will add Kevin Love back in a few weeks.

Altman’s plan seems to be working, one executive told Mark Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he stays in Cleveland now,” one high-ranking Eastern Conference team executive said. “The Cavaliers put a really good team around him. The Cavaliers have made it really tough for him to decide to leave Cleveland again. The Lakers might have helped them keep LeBron.”

I had heard from sources for a while LeBron to the Lakers was not likely (Paul George is another story, that door remains open). As Spears notes, the Lakers did not have an All-Star in Sunday’s game. Even if LeBron and PG13 went to Los Angeles, that team was third or fourth best in the West next season. LeBron is in full on legacy mode and wants to win rings. Los Angeles is not the place to do it.

Houston is interesting (and it’s still a team I hear some execs think has a real shot), but the gutting or role players on that roster to make it work would be a concern. Maybe a dark horse such as Philadelphia can emerge. However, if LeBron can lead this newly-energized Cavaliers team to the Finals again (his eighth consecutive trip there), they get a high draft pick with the Brooklyn pick, then LeBron gets a commitment from Altman and owner Dan Gilbert to keep spending and being aggressive, where is he going to be closer to a title than at home?

Lou Williams trolls Jimmy Butler for resting during All-Star Game

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Jimmy Butler was in Los Angeles and enjoying his well-earned All-Star slot on Team Stephen.

Well, except for the actual playing basketball part. Butler did not set foot on the court during the All-Star Game at his own request.

“Rest,” Butler said when asked why he didn’t play. “I have to rest. I have to rest my body up. This Timberwolves season is very, very important to me. I’ve got to make sure I’m ready to roll when I get back there.”

Lou Williams, the Clippers’ guard who likely would have been near the front of the line for an open All-Star roster spot in the West (likely second in the queue behind Chris Paul), but instead took part in the Saturday Skills Competition then had Sunday off, trolled Butler for it on Twitter.

This seems more good natured than genuinely bitter.

Williams will roll with it, but his point’s a valid one — if you’re an All-Star, at least play a little and give the people what they want. Get out there for five minutes or whatever. LaMarcus Aldridge only played four minutes, no big deal.

If you’re not going to use the roster spot, give it up to someone who will.

Report: Raptors won’t sign Vince Carter if he gets bought out

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Of returning to the Raptors, Vince Carter said, “It’ll happen one day.” It sounds as if the Kings would buy him out if he wants.

Will he end the season with Toronto?

Josh Lewenberg of TSN 1050:

After speaking with a few team sources, I can confirm that they’ve had internal dialogue and debate about the idea of bringing Vince Carter back. It’s something that they wanted to do over the summer. That’s why they made him an offer, something that I’ve reported in the past. And it’s also something that they’d be open to in the future, perhaps next year in some capacity. But they’ve decided now is not the right time. And I think the consensus seems to be there’s so much going on right now, and they want this season to be about this team, their accomplishments and their playoff push and not the sideshow that I think would come with a Vince Carter return.

The Raptors (41-16) are on pace for their best record ever. They’re excelling offensively and defensively. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are spearheading a more dynamic offense that spurs hope for more playoff success.

Toronto is probably correct to save the Carter reunion for another year – though it depends who else is available. That 15th roster spot could be useful. If Carter is the best player who’d sign, the Raptors should sign him and deal with the hoopla.

But it’s not clear whom they could get or whether they could even get Carter. He hasn’t sounded like someone who’d forgo guaranteed salary to play for the minimum.