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The incredible journey of Hassan Whiteside

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BOSTON – When Hassan Whiteside declared for the 2010 NBA draft, he was considered a likely lottery pick.

Three years later, his reputation in the United States was in tatters. A failed two-season stint with the Kings seemingly confirmed the maturity concerns that pushed him to the second round coming out of Marshall. After all, if his physical tools – 7-foot with a 7-foot-7 wingspan and impressive leaping ability – couldn’t keep him in the league at age 23, what was wrong with him?

So, Whiteside went to Lebanon to play for “the only team that would take me.”

“I’ve always been NBA, NBA, NBA since I was little. So, it didn’t really change anything as far as,” Whiteside said, tapping his heart, “it went for me. But other people was probably like, ‘No way he’s going to get back there.’”

Not only is Whiteside back, he’s thriving.

Whiteside is averaging 9.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game for the Heat. Per 36 minutes, those numbers translate to 18.0 points, 15.2 rebounds and 4.7 blocks.

His PER (28.0) ranks No. 2 in the NBA – sandwiched between Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant. Miami has brought Whiteside along slowly since signing him in November, sending him to the D-League and initially bringing him off the bench. But it’s time to question whether the the Heat discovered a true star hiding in plain sight.

Whiteside looks exactly like his best-case projections entering the draft, so this isn’t completely out of left field. It just took longer – and required overcoming more obstacles – than expected.

The NBA didn’t embrace him until now, but when was Whiteside ready to tear through the league as he has?

“You never know if you’re ready to swim unless you jump in the pool,” Whiteside said.

After his experience overseas, Whiteside jumped in with both feet.

Whiteside recalls seeing a man die in front of him following a car crash in Lebanon, the man’s son crying at his side. Whiteside still thinks about it, grateful for where he is now.

Another time, Whiteside had a scheduled physical interrupted because there was a car bomb earlier in the day near the Beirut hospital he planned to visit.

“It really put things in perspective,” Whiteside said. “It’s different watching it on the news and when it’s down the street.”

Or in the arena.

In Whiteside’s second Lebanese game, a fight in the stands interrupted the contest with players going in and out of the crowd.

“Where did I come?” Whiteside thought to himself. “I want to go back to America. This is crazy.”

You can watch the game – a big upset for Whiteside’s team – including the fight (29:20) and Whiteside’s postgame interview (1:34:30):

“You do some things when you’re chasing a dream,” Whiteside said. “You do some crazy things. I love basketball. So, that’s where basketball took me.”

It also took him to China, where as he put it, “your translator is basically everything to you.”

“If he’s lazy and he don’t want to help you, you’re going to struggle,” Whiteside said.

How was his?

“He had his good days and bad days,” Whiteside said. “I’d give him a C.”

Now, Whiteside cherishes these experiences, the two-year odyssey around the globe.

“It really made me who I am,” Whiteside said. “It’s really coming out to be a great journey for me.”

Whiteside said he never understood the criticism that ensnared him after he left Sacramento. He insists he “just got older. I’m the same person.”

For what it’s worth, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says nothing but good things about Whiteside’s work ethic so far.

“He embraced it,” Spoelstra said. “And I think it helped, his perspective and his experiences the last couple years. So, it was the convergence of a lot of good timings.”

Really, Whiteside can retroactively erase his old reputation by remaining a model NBA citizen in Miami. If he does, the Kings’ credibility will suffer, whether or not the criticism was fair at the time. Whiteside was too irrelevant then for most fans to remember his alleged thorniness now. They’ll just wonder how Sacramento ever let him go.

In the spotlight – his emergence dubbed Hassanity – Whiteside has an effective fresh start. Asked how he continues to stay hungry amid his recent success, Whiteside reveals a mindset that will effectively clear any demerits on his permanent record.

“So what whatever I did in the past,” Whiteside said. “Every day is a new day. I just really want to make people just remember my name.”

If he keeps this up, people will.

Whiteside is averaging 13.6 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game in the calendar year. Only Alonzo Mourning, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Dikembe Mutombo, Patrick Ewing, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob McAdoo – Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers – have hit those marks over a full season.

They each played more than 36 minutes per game. Whiteside is doing it in just 24.3 minutes per game.

And these aren’t empty numbers.

The Heat outscore opponents by 2.2 points per 100 possessions with Whiteside on the court and get outscored by 6.6 points per 100 possessions without him. None of the other dozen Miami players who’ve appeared in at least 20 games have such a positive influence:

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Whiteside’s impact is particularly noticeable defensively.

Opponents are more selective about shooting in the paint – certainly due to Whiteside blocking shots at a per-minute rate the NBA hasn’t seen in a few years – but they’re not selective enough. Miami allows 57 percent shooting in the paint without Whiteside and 46 percent with him.

Whiteside is showing his offensive range, too. He has a soft touch to the point this shot, while exceptional, is not a huge outlier:

There’s still a segment that believes Whiteside is succeeding by catching teams off guard – that once they game plan for him, Hassanity will end.

“I mean, if they’re not putting me in their scouting report now,” Whiteside said, “thank you.”

To be fair, there is an element of surprise among Whiteside’s peers. Chris Bosh said he’d never even heard of Whiteside until his Heat workout.

Bosh said Whiteside “hasn’t done anything yet” and likes to remind the third-year player of it. Frequently.

“He doesn’t like talking to me all the time about that stuff,” Bosh said.

Is that true?

“Oh, nah man,” Whiteside said. “Chris Bosh is the man. He’s a 10-time All-Star. Anybody would want to take advice from him.”

Add Bosh to the list of people wrong about Whiteside.

Bosh doesn’t want to be in the group wrong about Whiteside’s next step, though. He’s pushing Whiteside – whose minimum salary for this season and next has been a huge bargain for the Heat – to earn a big contract.

“I’m demanding, I guess,” Bosh said. “It’s just because I see the potential that he has.”

Bosh is looking toward Whiteside’s future.

Spoelstra is focused on Whiteside’s present: “It’s hard not to root for somebody like that, but the most important thing now is to be able to sustain that. And the things we talk about are the work ethic and the program we have set every single day for him, and he’s been good about embracing the work.”

And Whiteside can’t stop thinking about his past.

“A lot of people like that story where somebody started from the bottom, and now they’re starting to see progress and success,” he said. “Because I feel like everybody can relate to that.

“Everybody got dreams of theirs. And people like to see other people succeed, even when it’s times in their lives that they struggled.”

Close-knit Pacers’ bond gets tested with season on the line

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The Indiana Pacers have been winning together, losing together and fighting together all season.

Now they need to demonstrate their resilience once more as they try to save their season by rebounding from an emotional loss to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Nobody thought we’d be in this situation,” Victor Oladipo said, referring to the playoffs. “It’s important for us to stick together now because we’ve seen where it can go, where it can take us and it’s great.”

The immediate problem is recent history doesn’t bode well for the underdog Pacers, who trail 3-2 with Game 5 set for Friday in Indianapolis.

Cleveland swept Indiana in the first round last year, winning four games by a record low 16 total points. James has won 10 straight close-out games and has never lost a first-round series. Indiana, meanwhile, is trying to reach the conference semifinals for the first time since 2014.

But the Pacers don’t care about stats, projections or conventional wisdom – as they’ve proven repeatedly this season.

Following last summer’s Paul George trade, Indiana seemed bound for the draft lottery. Instead, general manager Kevin Pritchard cobbled together a rare combination of proven, often overlooked veterans, emerging stars, good shooters and willing defenders.

It turned out to be a perfect fit.

Indiana won 48 games, six more than it did with George last season, and is a win away from forcing the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs into a decisive seventh game.

Cleveland has learned one lesson the hard way: The fifth-seeded Pacers won’t go away. They won 12 times after facing double-digit deficits and eight times after trailing by 15 or more during the regular season.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise Indiana has erased double-digit deficits in four straight game and wound up taking the lead or having a chance to win late in all four in this series.

“That team does not quit,” James said, moments after his buzzer-beating 3-pointer gave Cleveland a 98-95 win to salvage a win Wednesday after Pacers wiped out a 12-point second half to deficit to tie the score in the final minute.

Playing hard until the final buzzer has become the norm for these Pacers.

And they’re savoring every precious second, too.

Nate McMillan recently called this one of the most enjoyable seasons he’s had as a head coach because he knows what he’ll get every day – energy from Oladipo and Lance Stephenson, steadiness from Darren Collison and Corey Joseph, leadership from Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic and an eagerness to develop from Myles Turner and other young players.

With each player embracing their role, the Pacers have formed a cohesive bond.

Six players actually approached Pritchard before the trade deadline and pleaded with the GM not to make any moves because they wanted to close out this season together. Pritchard said it a first for him, and kept the team intact.

“It kind of is like a college team bond,” said Young, one of the six players who approached Pritchard. “Typically you have a lot of NBA teams that don’t bond as well as you do in college when you’re living with each other and you’re around each other all the time. You know in the NBA, you spend time with your family, things like that.

“This team we all hang out together, we go to dinner together on the road. We do everything together.”

The difference has shown.

After enduring an early and sometimes uneven learning curve early this season, the Pacers finally got in sync in early January and played better than anyone, perhaps even McMillan or Pritchard could have anticipated.

From Jan. 6 through the end of the regular season, they went 29-15 and allowed 101.3 points per game and didn’t lose more than two in a row.

They moved up three spots in the Eastern Conference postseason pecking order and headed into their latest round against James having won three of the four regular-season matchups. The Pacers even routed the Cavs on their home court in Game 1.

Since then, though, the series has been all-out slugfest and James has gotten the knockout blow in three times.

Now, with their season on the line, the Pacers need to provide a unified front one more time Friday night just to keep this season alive.

They’re ready.

“Sure, we’ve still got something to prove. No one believes we can beat Cleveland,” Bogdanovic said. “It’s about trust in what we’ve got in each other.”

More AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Report: J.B. Bickerstaff agrees to three-year deal to coach Memphis Grizzlies

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We heard rumblings that the Memphis Grizzlies were looking to remove the interim distinction from J.B. Bickerstaff’s title and make him acting head coach. Now, the team has made their move.

According to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Memphis agreed to a three-year deal with Bickerstaff on Thursday, making him the new head coach of the team.

Bickerstaff, 39, was previously the associate head coach of the Grizzlies under David Fizdale. Fizdale was fired in November, and Bickerstaff took over as interim head coach.

This has been a long time coming for Bickerstaff, who was a longtime assistant coach in Charlotte, Minnesota, and Houston. Bickerstaff took over the Rockets job in 2015 when the team fired head coach Kevin McHale.

The task ahead of Bickerstaff will not be easy. Next season he will get Mike Conley back from injury, but the roster is still in the process of being rebuilt and Marc Gasol, 33, seems like constant trade bait. The Western Conference is tough, but finally Bickerstaff gets his shot at the big job on a permanent basis.

Enes Kanter helps pardon Thunder fans who left playoff game early (VIDEO)

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Enes Kanter may be leaning toward opting in to his $18 million player option with the New York Knicks this summer (I would) but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have love for fans in Oklahoma City.

In a video posted to social media on Thursday, Oklahoma City mayor David Holt and Kanter appeared together to give pardons to the Thunder fans who left early during the team’s Game 5 win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony staved off elimination with their win against Utah, giving the Jazz a 3-2 series lead as they head back to Salt Lake City on Friday night.

Kanter, who played for the Thunder from 2015-2017, says he is still friendly with many of the players on the Oklahoma City roster. Kanter also played for the Jazz for the first three-and-a-half years of his career.

Via Twitter:

I personally don’t understand leaving a game early. Your car is trapped underground or is parked six miles away on some back alley, you’re not leaving any game quickly. The train is going to be jam packed and will sit at the stadium station for like 28 more minutes after you board, no matter when you board.

Don’t leave games early, folks. Try to haggle with the people working the concession stands to give you another soft pretzel for free. Get your money’s worth.

Giannis Antetokounmpo slashes Celtics, forces Game 7 in Boston

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The Milwaukee Bucks needed a big game from Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday night. Boy, did they get it.

After a disappointing in Game 5 in Boston, Antetokounmpo was fearsome in his return to the Bradley Center for Game 6. The Bucks were able to keep their defensive intensity up, and we got the game most of us expected from Antetokounmpo in a return to his home court: complete domination on the biggest stage.

The game started out much the way we’ve seen in this series — sort of kooky. It was another low-scoring affair as the first half closed with Milwaukee leading, 49-38. The Celtics couldn’t get things rolling offensively, and were saved by baskets in the paint in the first quarter. Boston scored just 15 points in the second period, saving themselves with makes from beyond the 3-point line.

The real story of the game came in the second half. Antetokounmpo would not let up from the gas, scoring both as the Bucks center and on the break. Milwaukee’s franchise player matched up against Al Horford all night long, and the battle between the two was intense. Both seemed to want to muscle each other, and for different stretches they both got the better of each other.

Boston battled back, eventually tying the game at 61-61 with 4:21 to go in the third. The Celtics’ charge was led by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Horford, all three of whom allowed Boston to make up a 14-point deficit. Boston played carefully, allowing their young wings to do the work. Despite not having a fastbreak point until late in the third, they also didn’t have their first turnover of the second half until there was little more than three minutes to go in the same quarter. Antetokounmpo, who couldn’t let Boston’s run continue after the tie, turned on the jets to close the quarter and Milwaukee entered the fourth period with a 9-point lead they would never cede.

The fourth quarter was much of the same, with the matchup between Antetokounmpo, Horford, and Horford’s backup in Aron Baynes. Several times, Antetokounmpo ran full speed after starting with the ball on the opposite free-throw line, going right at either Horford or Baynes. But the Bucks star wasn’t completely selfish. He managed to stave off tunnel vision, at times finding teammates on his spins to the bucket.

A lot of talk was made about Antetokounmpo’s poor performance in Game 5, a career playoff-low of 16 points on just 10 field goal attempts. The Greek Freak made sure that didn’t happen again, finishing the game with 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, adding 14 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton were amped up as well. Both finished with 16 points, and as a team the Bucks scored 25 points on the break, with 50 points coming from the painted area, topping Boston in both regards.

For the Celtics, Tatum led the way with 22 points on six-of-14 shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists. Terry Rozier continued his playoff emergence, scoring 18 points while nabbing seven rebounds and dishing out five assists. Boston shot just 27.8 percent from the 3-point line.

Game 7 now heads back to Massachusetts, where we will see if Antetokounmpo can keep his foot to the floor and drive the Bucks past the second-seeded Celtics on Saturday.