NBA All-Star Weekend: Waiters, Hardaway light up Rising Stars Challenge with 3-point shootout

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NEW ORLEANS — To be perfectly honest, there are times when the Rising Stars Challenge can feel like a bit of a chore. It can’t match the talent level of the actual All-Star game, but it has all of the lack of defense, intensity, and ball movement that is usually par for the course in Sunday’s main event. Botched alley-oops, cherry-picking, jogging up and down the court, and ill-fated dribble moves are rampant.

So why is this a staple of NBA All-Star Weekend, and why do we watch? To put it plainly, there’s a very good chance that something completely insane will happen during the Rising Stars Challenge. Without so much as the pride of their conferences to play for, let alone the pressure of playing for their actual team, the players are openly out there to put on a show, and the flashes of sheer ridiculousness that come out of that mentality are often enough to make up for the apathy that makes up the rest of the game.

Last year, it was Kyrie Irving and Brandon Knight going at each other, which culminated in Irving destroying Knight’s ankles with one of the nastiest crossovers you’re likely to ever see. In 2003, Jason Richardson drilled a 3 after bouncing the ball off of Carlos Boozer’s head. And of course, it was the Rookie/Sophomore game that gave us one of the most audacious moves in the history of the NBA — Jason Williams’ legendary elbow pass.

On Friday, the game started out lackadaisically, even by All-Star Friday standards. When a player wanted to get a layup, he got to the rim with less resistance than a stiff breeze would be able to offer him. 3-pointers were thrown up early in the clock at a high volume, but rarely found their mark. The cherry-picking was even more blatant than usual.

Andre Drummond dominated the game simply by camping under the basket, actually trying to get rebounds, and easily depositing the ball in the hoop time after time. There weren’t even particularly impressive dunks or crossover moves to break up the monotony. It was shaping up to be 40 minutes of a game that only barely resembled basketball, and seemed to only be fun for those playing in it.

Then Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dion Waiters happened. With 8:58 remaining in the game, Hardaway Jr., who had been shooting the ball aggressively all night but struggling to get his shots to go in, drilled a 3. Waiters came right back at him, drove, and got two free throws. Waiters and Hardaway both said they had something of a score to settle before the game, as Hardaway had made a 3 with the clock winding down in a Knicks blowout win over the Cavaliers on TNT earlier in the year, something that Waiters told Hardaway he would “get him back” for.

Hardaway said that Waiters had talked to him before the game and during the game, and that both of them were “trying to do a great job of just getting the fans involved. It was kind of dead in there, and we just wanted to start something, a little one-on-one battle here and there.”

After Waiters made his free throws, the Waiters-Hardaway show had officially begun. Hardaway came right back down the court and drilled a 3. Waiters answered with a fadeaway jumper. Hardaway went to the hole and got free throws. Waiters got fouled and split free throws of his own. The players traded layups, then Hardaway set up his teammate for a layup.

After that, the three-point contest begun, as Waiters drilled a 3 in Hardaway’s face and Hardaway answered with a pull-up 3 of his own — from 33 feet away. The crowd had come alive. Waiters came right back with a 3. Hardaway came back with a 31-footer, and the crowd was fully on its feet. When Hardaway missed a 3 after two Waiters free throws, the two players had combined for 27 points in just under 3 minutes. They weren’t completely done, either, as they went head-to-head again a few minutes later to combine for 14 points in just under a minute.

Ultimately, Waiters got the better of the rookie on Friday, as he needed only 14 shots to get his 31 points and added 7 assists, while Hardaway Jr. needed 23 shots to get his 36 points and only managed to dish out two assists, and Waiters’ team ultimately pulled out the victory. Still, the important thing is that both men combined to give NBA fans the kind of display you simply won’t see often in the games that count, and one that made the Rising Stars Challenge anything but a forgettable affair.

Indiana’s Victor Oladipo: “There’s a strong possibility I might play”

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There are about three million reasons Victor Oladipo wants to play for the Pacers in the NBA’s restart in Orlando.

He told reporters on Wednesday he’s “definitely here trying to play” and not thinking about the money reasons. He says just wants to lace them up. Via J. Michael of the Indy Star.

There has been a dispute about Oladipo’s health and salary. After sitting out about a year with a ruptured quadriceps tendon above his right knee, Oladepo returned to play 13 games before the NBA season was shut down. When it came time to make a decision on playing in the restart, Oladipo announced he was sitting out due to increased injury risk during a quick ramp-up to play. However, the league saw the games played — and the fact Oladipo traveled with the team to Orlando and is practicing full speed, leading to increasing optimism he’ll play — and said he would be counted as a player not out due to injury. Which means Oladipo would not get paid for the games in Orlando — that’s $2.8 million if the Pacers got swept in the first round, and $3.2 million if they play at least six games.

After working out down in Orlando without restrictions, Victor Oladipo sounds like a guy ready to play.

Him feeling healthy no doubt factors into that decision, but in the NBA always follow the money. And there are $3 million reasons for Oladipo to lace them up.

Thunder’s Dennis Schroder will leave bubble next month for birth of child

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Oklahoma City guard Dennis Schroderjust like Boston’s Gordon Hayward and Utah’s Mike Conley — has a pregnant wife due to give birth to his child while he is in the bubble.

Just like those guys, Schroder said he is leaving the bubble to put family first when it is time. Via Joe Mussatto of The Oklahoman:

“I’m not gonna leave my wife by herself while she’s having a second baby,” Schroder said. “(Dennis) Jr. is still 17 months old, so I’m for sure gonna go there and support her and try as much as I can to be there for my family…

“For me it’s tough,” Schroder said. “I love my teammates, I love basketball, but family comes first all the time. I’ll try to make something happen with the organization. I sacrifice a lot for my team, but like I said, we still gotta get on the same page that I can see my family maybe when the baby is coming. We’re going to make it work.”

The baby is due in “3-4 weeks,” which is mid-August.

Schroder is absolutely doing the right thing prioritizing his family. Nobody should criticize his decision.

That said, if he is gone for some of the first round of the playoffs, which start Aug. 17, it would be a blow to the Thunder, who almost certainly will be in a difficult matchup in the middle of a crowded West (currently they would face Utah in a 4/5 matchup, but with the middle of the conference bunched together the seeding games likely change that).

Schroder is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate averaging 19 points per game while shooting 38.1% from three. The Thunder are at their most dangerous with a three-guard lineup where Schroder is paired with Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a rotation that can’t happen with Schroeder gone.

Schroder can return to the team. He has to get tested every day he is outside the bubble, but because this is an excused absence and the league has been notified, upon his return Schroeder will have a four-day quarantine (so long as he continues to have negative tests). Players who leave the bubble without notifying teams face a 10-day quarantine.

Oklahoma City is going to need Schroder and his crafty game if they are going to be a playoff threat that moves beyond the first round in Orlando.

 

Orlando’s James Ennis admits he had COVID-19, is now recovered and practicing

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Add James Ennis — who has started most games at the three for Orlando since being traded there at the deadline — to the list of players who had COVID-19.

Ennis is recovered and Wednesday returned to practice but admitted to reporters in a zoom he was one of the players who had tested positive for the disease. From Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel.

James Ennis is an example of why the NBA started its testing in the home markets of teams back on June 23: find the players who had the virus, get them treatment as needed, help them recover, and keep the virus itself out of the NBA campus/bubble in Orlando. How well that ultimately works remains an unanswered question, but the Ennis is an example of the concept working.

Ennis’ move into the starting lineup in Orlando not-so-coincidentally timed out with when the Magic offense took off (a 117.8 offensive rating after the All-Star break, best in the NBA). Ennis, the lone Long Beach State player in the NBA now, provides shooting to space the floor on the wing (career 35.4% from three), and that opened up driving lanes for Aaron Gordon and room for others to operate. He quickly became a critical piece of the Magic offense. Ennis was traded to Orlando from Philadephia at the deadline for a second-round pick.

Orlando enters the NBA restart as the eighth seed in the East, but with a realistic shot to pass a depleted Brooklyn team for the seven seed. Healthy, with an explosive offense and balanced roster, the Magic will not be an easy out in the first round of the playoffs.

Coaches, players compare NBA Orlando restart to USA Basketball experience

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Formulating a plan to get a team ready for the restart of the NBA season wasn’t as difficult as one might expect for Indiana coach Nate McMillan.

Turns out, he’s been through something similar to this before.

Spending an extended stretch away from home during the summer, while unprecedented as part of an NBA season, isn’t exactly a foreign concept for those with USA Basketball experience like the Olympics and the World Cup. Plenty of players and coaches at Walt Disney World see parallels between those experiences and this challenge.

“I had that opportunity to work with the Olympic team and preparation was very similar to what we’re going through here,” said McMillan, who was an assistant under Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski on the USA Basketball staff from 2006 through 2012. “Having a training camp, basically, at a hotel and getting ready for a 45- to 60-day season. … We’re going to have three scrimmage games, eight so-called regular season games and then we’re in the playoffs so it’s very similar to preparing to play for the gold medal.”

Players who have been through the World Cup or Olympic grinds agree that there’s a level of familiarity with this sort of schedule and situation.

“It helps tremendously,” said Toronto guard Kyle Lowry, who was part of the U.S. gold-medal-winning team at the Olympics in 2016. “In Rio it was a lot more strict and tighter because we were living on a boat. That experience was pretty awesome. … But living on a boat, to be in a smaller room and not have as many amenities it really kind of prepared me for this.”

Even players who have been part of USA Basketball’s events for younger players, like Under-18 or Under-19 tournaments internationally, know the drill when it comes to living in a hotel for a few weeks and not having a lot of latitude when it comes to being free to roam. Players at Disney cannot leave the campus because of coronavirus protocols, though the league has made plenty of entertainment options — fishing, golf, boating, table tennis and more — available to them.

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said he would follow much of the same policies that the U.S. program used when he was an assistant on those national-team staffs, such as a heavy reliance on medical personnel to determine what days to have a hard practice and what days to take it a bit easier. Phoenix coach Monty Williams said he also refreshed his memory on national-team days when putting together a plan for his team’s stay at Disney.

“It has forced me to dig into the archives of that time with USA Basketball,” said Williams, another former national team assistant under Krzyzewski. “I’ve heard a lot of the players say that it reminds them of AAU, but for me it reminds me so much of my time in Spain at the World Cup. It’s a bit longer than the Olympics … and you have a lot of free time.”

Pacers center Myles Turner was with the U.S. team that competed in China last summer at the World Cup, a group that spent more than seven weeks together between training camp, exhibition games in the U.S. and Australia, and then the tournament itself.

The Pacers have clinched a playoff spot, so they’re assured of spending at least seven weeks at Disney this summer. It’s another long summer for Turner, and he’s not complaining.

“There is a lot of similarity in how it’s set up, but for me personally, I just think that it’s a great time for everybody to kind of stay focused,” Turner said. “There’s no distractions. Everybody’s locked in and focused. So, there’s really not a lot that can go wrong in a basketball sense.”

One difference at Disney is that nobody has family members with them until at least the second round of the playoffs. At an Olympics, it’s typical for family and friends to make the trip — and at last year’s World Cup, a small number of players also made arrangements for family to join them in China.

“This is a little bit different than that, but certainly the timing is similar and the timing for us as far as preparation is probably more like a FIBA-type schedule than it is like a training camp,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “You’re practicing for a couple weeks and then you’re playing a few games and then it really, really counts.”

NOTES: San Antonio assistant Tim Duncan is not with the Spurs at Disney; the team said he has remained home to help LaMarcus Aldridge with his rehab from season-ending shoulder surgery. … Of the 22 teams in the restart, eight opted to take Tuesday off from practice.