AP

Nuggets narrowly miss playoffs, but find cornerstone in Nikola Jokic

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DENVER (AP) Nikola Jokic had absolutely no clue about his final stats until an assistant coach informed him a day after the season ended. No idea whatsoever. Not his points (16.7). Not his rebounds (9.8). Not his assists (4.9).

The Denver Nuggets big man preferred not knowing, so he didn’t get hung up on numbers.

That sort of focus might’ve worked wonders for the youthful Nuggets down the stretch as they narrowly lost out to Portland for the final playoff spot in the West.

“The playoff (chase) was too much pressure for us,” Jokic said Thursday after the team missed the postseason for a fourth straight season. “Every game, it’s like, `Oh, the playoffs – if we lose this, we’re not going to make the playoffs.’… Just play the game as normal.”

Still, the Nuggets (40-42) improved by seven games over a season ago. This despite using 32 different lineups and finishing 3-12 in games where they were behind by one or tied in the final minute, according to research on NBA.com.

“For us to make the run we did, with all the injuries we had, all the young players we were playing, was remarkable,” said coach Michael Malone , whose team was eliminated from playoff contention Sunday on Russell Westbrook‘s long 3-pointer at the buzzer in Oklahoma City’s win.

Even more, the Nuggets found the centerpiece to build around in Jokic , who recorded six triple-doubles. General manager Tim Connelly said the 6-foot-10 Serbian is on the brink of becoming a transcendent player.

First, though, some rest.

Jokic’s exhausted after a long season on the heels of helping his country earn a silver medal at the Rio Olympics last summer.

“I’m going to take this break,” said Jokic, a second-round pick in 2014 whose standout play made it possible to trade bruiser Jusuf Nurkic to the Blazers for Mason Plumlee in February. “It’s going to be nice for me.”

Danilo Gallinari certainly likes the direction the team is headed, especially given the emergence of Jokic, sharp-shooting rookie Jamal Murray and Gary Harris.

“One of the positive things, for example, is the talent and the number of young guys that we have,” Gallinari said. “They are very good players and it’s something the franchise can build on.”

Whether Gallinari sticks around in Denver for next season is a different story. He could opt out of his deal and explore free agency.

“It’s not time right now to make the decision,” said Gallinari, who was acquired in the blockbuster deal that sent Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks in 2011. “Right now, it’s time to digest the fact we were not able to accomplish the goal (of the playoffs) that I had, that we had, at the beginning of the season.

“After that, it’s time to go on vacation for a little bit, rest the body.”

Here are some takeaways from Denver’s season:

DESERVING HONOR: Murray believes he belongs on the all-rookie team after being one of Denver’s top outside threats. “I feel like I’m one of the better rookies in the class,” said Murray, the seventh overall pick out of Kentucky. “Got a chance to prove it.”

MILE HIGH LOVE: While the lure of testing free agency is attractive to Gallinari, so is returning to a city he loves. “I have a house here. After my career, Denver is going to be my city. It’s very tough for me to leave. We’ll see,” Gallinari said.

LEARNING LESSON: After missing time with lower back pain, point guard Emmanuel Mudiay found it difficult to get minutes. The seventh overall pick in 2015 turned in several strong games down the stretch after being demoted. “I became a better player,” Mudiay said. “Not saying I want to miss games, but when I did miss games, sit back and watch and look … see what you can do better.”

UP AND DOWN: Harris developed into a pivotal player after being bothered by a strained groin early, and then a foot injury. He averaged 14.9 points. “Gary’s ascension has kind of been understated,” Connelly said. “He really turned into a special player at the two-guard.”

ABILITY TO CHANGE: The Nuggets were all about going with a big lineup at the start of the season. After the emergence of Jokic, they switched gears and ran things through him. “He’s got a lot of unique tools,” Connelly said. “Offensively, he almost plays a near-perfect brand of basketball.”

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Bucks’ Khris Middleton, dealing with illness, misses practice

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — Bucks wing Khris Middleton missed practice with an illness that has been bothering the Bucks’ second-leading scorer (14.7 points) all week.

Middleton was 3 of 8 for eight points in 35 minutes in the 118-93 Game 5 loss in Toronto that gave the Raptors a 3-2 series lead. Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd said he didn’t think the illness was a factor, and that Middleton had good looks and played well defensively. He expected Middleton to start on Thursday and said he wasn’t pondering any lineup changes for Game 6.

The Bucks got a day off from practice then returned to practice Wednesday after a brief break from what has been an increasingly rugged series.

After getting blown out in Game 3 by the Bucks, the Raptors won the next two games in part by being more physical and slowing down Milwaukee.

Sometimes, a young team needs to learn from failure to get better.

Kidd hopes his players build on the lessons learned from a stinker of a Game 5 in their opening-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors. They need to regroup quickly to avoid elimination when the Raptors and Bucks meet Thursday night at the Bradley Center.

“Yeah, I hope so,” Kidd said when asked about whether his players learned from the blowout loss. “Today, I thought guys were focused, understanding what we have to do. It’s not hard, but for us the process of being able to be consistent is the one thing that we struggle with.”

Workaholic forward Giannis Antetokounmpo might have been the only player who didn’t want a breather.

“I don’t know, for me, I didn’t need an off-day. But for sure some guys played a lot of minutes, their bodies are sore,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think for some guys it’s good to get some rest so we can bring more energy tomorrow.”

For all of his athleticism, the 22-year-old Antetokounmpo lacks playoff experience when compared to the postseason-tested Raptors.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton are playing in their second career playoff series after the Bucks lost in six games to top-seeded Chicago in 2015. Antetokounmpo’s role has changed now that he’s the focal point of the offense, so he faces more defensive scrutiny.

The team surrounding Antetokounmpo and Middleton has been almost completely made over since then, with injured forward Jabari Parker and center John Henson the only other holdovers. Henson has only played three minutes against Toronto.

Two other starters, guard Malcolm Brogdon and center Thon Maker, are rookies. Even center Greg Monroe, a seven-year veteran who provides scoring punch off the bench, is making his playoff debut. Fourth-year players Tony Snell (Bulls) and Matthew Dellavedova (Cavaliers) joined the Bucks this season, brought to Milwaukee in part because of their postseason experience.

In contrast, the Raptors have been through about every conceivable playoff situation after losing to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals last season. Led by one of the best backcourts in the game in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, Toronto is no stranger to adversity.

“You definitely see that experience come into play and we just understand the moment probably a little bit more than them. That’s not to take away (anything) from them,” DeRozan said. “They are a great team, a young team and this is definitely going to be an experience they will learn from and carry over but for now it’s something we have to keep in mind and understand the moment of going into every single game … to try and close this thing out.”

Milwaukee’s transition game is off track with 31 turnovers over the last two contests.

“That’s the physicality part, because it’s the playoffs, because it’s more intense. You get away with slaps, holds, grabs and that’s a trick of the trade,” said Jason Terry, a 17-year veteran who is averaging about 10 minutes a game off the bench for the Bucks this series.

“If you haven’t (been) through that, you don’t know it until you face it,” Terry said. “I think for us being a young team, now that we’ve seen it four or five games consecutively, hopefully now we can adjust.”

NOTES:

 

Jimmy Butler hits contested deep buzzer-beating 3-pointer (video)

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Shooting buzzer-beaters is especially difficult because the defender knows your deadline to release the shot. The threat of a pump fake, drive to another location or pass disappears as the seconds tick down.

On the other hand, Jimmy Butler is very good.

Wizards’ interior defense, transition buckets earns them 103-98 win, 3-2 series lead over Hawks

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It’s one of the core tenets of the NBA analytics movement that aligns well with old-school thinking — get your buckets from the places it’s easiest to score. The ones where teams shoot the highest percentage, where they are most efficient. Basically, shoot close to the basket or corner threes.

Feeling comfortable back home, Washington took those shots away from Atlanta Wednesday night — the Hawks shot 43.6 percent inside eight feet of the rim, were just 18-of-41 in the paint (43.9 percent) and were 0-of-6 on corner threes.

Combine that with 27 points from Bradley Beal, 20 points and 14 assists for John Wall, and some transition baskets (20 fast break points) and you get a 103-98 win for the Wizards. Washington now has a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 in Atlanta Friday night (if necessary, Game 7 would be Sunday).

Washington always seemed to be the better team in this one, but they could never get a comfortable lead — when Washington would get up double digits, the Hawks would close the gap again and hang around.

A lot of credit for that goes to point guard Dennis Schroder, who had 29 points on 10-of-18 shooting, and was 5-of-6 from three, to lead the Hawks. As it has been all series, the Wizards game plan with Schroder was to go under every pick and dare him to beat them with his jumper — and he almost did. Schroder also had 11 assists on the game.

While he played well and Paul Millsap was his usual impressive self inside (21 points, although on 8-of-19 shooting), the Hawks wings were a mess. Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, and Tim Hardaway Jr. combined to shoot 13-of-41 (31.7 percent) and they were 3-of-18 from three (Hardaway had all the makes).

Meanwhile, Beal had one of his best games of the playoffs, and he deserves some credit for the struggles of the Hawks’ wings.

“I think (Beal) is one of the best two-way players in the league,” Brooks said. “He’s not going to tell anyone he’s a great defender, but his coaching staff, his teammates know he locks up defensively.”

Washington also got some help from Otto Porter (17 points) and Bojan Bogdanovic off the bench with 14 points. Both of them made some clutch shots.

Scott Brooks threw some new wrinkles at the Hawks that worked for stretches — using Wall to double Millsap at times, or going for a stretch with Markieff Morris at the five. Morris still had foul trouble despite the help, the veteran Millsap knows how to get calls. Still, the tweaks worked well enough to get Washington some buckets, and the win.

The question becomes will the Wizards be able to do that on the road — the home team has won every game this series. If the Hawks’ wings feel more comfortable and hit some shots, if Atlanta can get some more easy points inside Friday night, we will be watching Game 7 of this series on Sunday.

No. 1 pick in WNBA draft LAUNCHES shirt deep into stands at Spurs-Grizzlies game (video)

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If the Cleveland Browns are still considering a quarterback with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft tomorrow, maybe they ought to take Kelsey Plum.

Plum, the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft, will play for the San Antonio Stars. First, she went to San Antonio for last night’s Spurs-Grizzlies Game 5 and showed off her arm by launching a shirt far into the crowd.

And she’s witty: