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Nikola Mirotic’s return sparks Bulls to 6-game win streak

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CHICAGO (AP) — Nikola Mirotic has turned into a matchup nightmare. Kris Dunn looks like one of the NBA’s most promising young point guards, and Bobby Portis and David Nwaba have provided a spark off the bench.

For a team that was supposed to be tanking this year, the Chicago Bulls look awfully competitive all of a sudden.

Led by Mirotic and Dunn, Chicago beat Philadelphia 117-115 on Monday night for its sixth consecutive victory on the heels of a 10-game slide – a turnaround unlike any other in NBA history. The Bulls are perfect since Mirotic returned Dec. 8 after missing the start of the season with facial fractures following a fight with Portis.

“I think the biggest thing is, the reason why we are winning, is because we are having fun with it,” Dunn said. “When you are having fun, when you are winning, things (are) a lot smoother.”

This was not exactly the plan for Chicago after it went 41-41 last season and lost to Boston in the first round of the playoffs. All-Star Jimmy Butler was traded to Minnesota in June and Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo and Taj Gibson departed for greener pastures as Chicago embarked on a potentially painful rebuilding process.

Then Mirotic and Portis got into an altercation during practice on Oct. 17, and the Bulls became the laughingstock of the league. Portis was suspended for eight games and Mirotic needed weeks to recover from his injuries.

For a while, no one was quite sure whether Mirotic and Portis would be able to play together again. But they figured it out over time, validating Chicago’s patient approach to the situation.

“I was very, very excited to start the season,” Mirotic said. “Putting in all the work and gaining 20 pounds of (muscle) on my body, but sometimes things just happen (for) a reason. You never know why is the reason. Even maybe could be looking very bad in the beginning, but at the end of the day, now, I’m not saying it’s good, but just trying to be positive out there, making my life simple in the game.”

The 26-year-old Mirotic, who re-signed with Chicago in September on a two-year contract that could pay as much as $27 million, was maddeningly inconsistent during his first three years in the league. But he has been an absolute terror since coming back from the preseason fight, averaging 20.3 points and 7.3 rebounds during the streak.

He has been more aggressive after often deferring to his teammates early in his career. Offseason weightlifting work has helped with his low-post game and defense.

“He’s a real threat, you have to know where he is,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “I think when we study, what does a modern-day player look like, it looks like him. It looks like him. Big athlete, got a bounce, can make shots, and seemingly he’s been one of the key things to connect the dots.”

The 6-foot-10 Mirotic can shoot over smaller players or take the ball to the basket when he is guarded by a big man. With Dunn, Portis and rookie Lauri Markkanen creating their own matchup problems, the Bulls are becoming a tough team to defend.

Chicago (9-20) had seven players score in double figures in the victory over Philadelphia. It is averaging 111 points during its win streak.

“These guys have made leaps and bounds from where we were as far as making plays down the stretch and going out and playing with confidence when it matters most,” coach Fred Hoiberg said.

Dunn, who came over in the Butler deal, hit a couple of big shots down the stretch against Philadelphia and finished with 22 points and six assists. He has scored in double figures in a career-best eight straight games.

Portis and Nwaba, who missed a chunk of the season with a sprained right ankle, have had their moments as well. Portis scored a career-high 27 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in Friday night’s 115-109 victory at Milwaukee, and Nwaba has scored in double figures in six of his last seven games.

“David is doing a lot of little things for this team,” Hoiberg said. “We missed him a lot when he was out of the lineup.”

Next up for Hoiberg’s team is a visit from lowly Orlando, losers of five in a row and six of seven. Then Chicago hits the road for a challenging three-game trip to Cleveland, Boston and Milwaukee, and Zach LaVine could make his Bulls debut next month in his return from knee surgery.

After looking completely lost at times during a 3-20 start, there is suddenly reason for hope in Chicago.

“It’s still about taking positive steps and our team has done that in these past couple weeks,” Hoiberg said.

 

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.

Stephen Curry back in full practice mode for Warriors

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Stephen Curry resumed full practice with contact and could play for the defending champion Golden State Warriors as soon as Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night against New Orleans.

Curry looked strong as he practiced Thursday wearing a protective brace over his sprained left knee, which has sidelined him since the injury March 23 – the same day he returned from a six-game absence because of a hurt right ankle.

Coach Steve Kerr is calling Curry questionable for Saturday. That could change if the two-time NBA MVP still feels fine Friday and is fine after one more day of full practice before the Pelicans visit Oracle Arena to begin the best-of-seven series.

“Steph practiced at 100 percent, he did everything, he looked good,” Kerr said. “What we have to do is see how his body responds the rest of the day, put him through another practice tomorrow. I think he needs to string together two good days but it was very positive today. … I think it’s been coming along pretty well. When we were in San Antonio and I was asked a question about how he was doing, I think I was able to give an answer, `He’s doing great but we haven’t ramped him up yet.’ I think today was an important day because it’s the first time he’s actually gone live action and he was allowed to go through practice. And he appears fine.”

Curry went through his usual shooting work with Kevin Durant from various spots after practice, cutting and exhibiting his fancy footwork and dribbling skills. The Warriors have played well without their floor leader, eliminating the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 of the first-round series with a 99-91 win Tuesday night.

The Pelicans will present a different, faster pace for the Warriors, so getting Curry back to push the ball and direct the offense would be important. Andre Iguodala, the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, started in the first round in his place while Quinn Cook handled point guard duties late in the regular season with Curry out.

“We’re excited. I know he’s very eager to play,” said Klay Thompson. “He’s a competitor, so sitting out I know kills him. We can’t wait for him to get back whenever that is.”

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