Associated Press

Kawhi Leonard scores 30 and Spurs rally past Pelicans, 94-86

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Kawhi Leonard darted into the lane to grab a long offensive rebound, dribbled back out beyond the top of the key and let a few precious seconds tick off before suddenly rising for a shot from 25 feet out.

The San Antonio star backpedaled, holding his right hand triumphantly above his head as his 3-pointer went through. Much of what had been a raucous crowd began quietly heading for the exits.

Leonard capped a 30-point, 11-rebound performance with a game-sealing 3 with 35 seconds left, and the Spurs extended their winning streak to seven games with a 94-86 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday night.

Leonard was 12-of-22 shooting, including 6 for 10 from 3-point range, one night after San Antonio clinched its 19th straight playoff berth with a victory at home against Detroit. Leonard’s difficult, game-tying, baseline turnaround with Jrue Holiday‘s hand in his face also helped fuel a 12-0 San Antonio run to close out the last 3:10.

“I’m just playing in the flow of the game. It doesn’t matter what quarter it is. I’m going to play the right basketball so we can get the right shots,” Leonard insisted when asked if he tried to be more assertive at crunch time. “Fortunately, I was able to make shots down the stretch.”

LaMarcus Aldridge had 26 points and Danny Green scored 11 for the Spurs, who trailed 86-82 after Anthony Davis‘ short baseline jumper with 3:36 to go.

Aldridge began the decisive run with an 11-foot jumper and later gave the Spurs the lead for good with a jumper set up by Tim Duncan‘s no-look pass from the lane.

“He was great – rebounded, played defense well, made shots, especially big ones in the fourth quarter that we needed,” Leonard said of Aldridge, who seems to be growing increasingly comfortable in his first season with the Spurs. “Being able to play with him … I see how good he really is and I’m just starting to learn more about him.”

Patty Mills widened the lead with a 3 before Leonard put it away.

Davis had 17 points and 13 rebounds for New Orleans, which dropped its third straight. Eric Gordon added 23 points and Holiday scored 13.

The Pelicans missed their last six shots and allowed the Spurs to grab a pair of critical offensive rebounds that led to five second-chance points during San Antonio’s game-ending run.

“There’s a reason they’re 52-9,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said of the Spurs, whose 23 road wins match the Pelicans’ overall victory total this season. “We gave ourselves the opportunity to beat a real good basketball team, but in the last 3 minutes we struggled again to get it in the basket and come up with stops.”

HIT IN THE MOUTH

Davis went to the locker room in the third quarter after taking an elbow to the mouth from Duncan while trying to defend the Spurs’ star near the basket. Davis, who was bleeding from his lip, was called for a blocking foul, which incensed Gentry and drew a torrent of boos.

Yet New Orleans was able to control tempo during the 7 minutes Davis spent getting his lip treated and turned a two-point deficit into a seven-point lead. Consecutive 3s by Gordon made it 68-61, but the Spurs closed the gap after Davis returned and trailed 68-67 following Leonard’s layup.

After the game, Davis’ lip was so swollen he declined to speak with reporters, but typed out a few comments on a team spokesman’s phone, saying the injury disrupted his rhythm.

“I basically had to get warmed up again,” Davis said.

CRUNCH-TIME BLUES

The Pelicans lost a six-point lead inside the final 5 minutes for a second straight night after doing the same thing in Houston on Wednesday.

“We have to find a way to figure out who we can go to at the end of the game that can get us those baskets,” Gentry said.

TIP-INS

Spurs: For the second time this season, San Antonio arrived in New Orleans on a six-game winning streak. The first time, the Spurs lost.

Pelicans: Davis tied David West‘s franchise record of 127 games with at least 10 points and 10 rebounds. … With 7-footers Omer Asik (sprained right ankle) and Alexis Ajinca (fractured sternum) both out, Kendrick Perkins started at center. He finished with two points, four rebounds and two assists in about 27 minutes.

Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin form NASCAR racing team with Bubba Wallace driving

Michael Jordan NASCAR
Brian Lawdermilk - Pool/Getty Images for NASCAR
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Michael Jordan is getting into the NASCAR game.

The North Carolina native has teamed up with three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin to form a new NASCAR Cup Series race team — and they’ve signed Bubba Wallace to drive.

Wallace is the only Black man driving full-time in NASCAR’s top series (the previous three seasons he raced for Richard Petty Motorsports). Wallace has been at the forefront of bringing social changes to NASCARincluding the banning of the Confederate flags at NASCAR events and tracks.

“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” Jordan said in a statement. “The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Michael Jordan becomes the first Black owner of a full-time race team in NASCAR top series since NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott in the 1960s and early 1970s (he owned the team and drove the car). Bubba Wallace is the first Black full-time driver in the top NASCAR series since Scott.

Hamlin will be a minority partner in the new team and continue to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“This is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I believe is a great fit for me at this point in my career,” said Wallace in a statement. “Both Michael and Denny are great competitors and are focused on building the best team they possibly can to go out and compete for race wins. I’m grateful and humbled that Michael and Denny believe in me and I’m super pumped to begin this adventure with them.”

The car manufacturer, number, sponsors and more will be announced at a later date.

Jordan is the primary owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

NBA executives pick Luka Doncic as best player under 25 to build around

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Luka Doncic, in his second season, made the leap into the NBA’s elite — fourth in MVP voting and First Team All-NBA. All at age 21.

Not surprisingly, he’s the player under 21 NBA teams would want to build around.

Michael Scotto of Hoopshype polled 15 league executives (including four general managers) and players under 25 they want to build around and Doncic was the unanimous choice.

“To me, Luka is the clear No. 1,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He’s a guy who can be a lead ballhandler. He’s good enough to score and create at a high level, has the right mental makeup and is incredibly smart. He’s been a winner everywhere and will probably be a winner in the league.”

It’s hard to argue when Luka Doncic is already doing this in the playoffs:

Boston’s Jayson Tatum came in second, Phoenix Devin Booker was third, followed by Ja Morant (Memphis) fourth and a tie at fifth between Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Bam Adebayo (Miami).

An interesting note about that top five: None of them was a No. 1 pick.

Zion Williamson had been on top of this poll a year ago, but after a season where he played just 19 games then looked a step slow in the bubble there are concerns about his long-term health.

“He’s just a special player inside the arc who’s an elite finisher,” one executive told HoopsHype. “Offensively, he can finish at an elite rate. He’s one of the best finishers behind Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and LeBron (James). He can hit the open man. He’s so physically dominant. His shooting shouldn’t be a problem, but we’ll see. I think he’s always going to be hurt, though.”

One healthy dominant season from Williamson and those opinions could shift, but even then Doncic will be an MVP level player the Mavericks can build a contender around. He’s the guy under 25.

Report: Raptors coach Nick Nurse earning $8M salary on extension

Raptors coach Nick Nurse
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Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich reportedly had an $11 million salary in 2015 then signed a contract extension in 2019 that keeps him the NBA’s highest-paid coach. Doc Rivers was earning $10 million annually with the Clippers before his latest extension. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also signed extensions in recent years.

What about Nick Nurse, who just signed an extension with the Raptors?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Raptors coach Nick Nurse signed a new multiyear contract extension on Tuesday — a deal that pays him around $8 million per year, sources say.

That’s a lot for a coach, especially in these times.

But Nurse has proven his value. He might even be the NBA’s best coach right now. He checks so many key boxes.

He has shown the ability to prepare his team for the playoffs then adapt through a long playoff run. His players have developed under his watch. He has dealt with roster upheaval and kept everything humming.

After just two seasons as head coach, Nurse still must prove himself in more situations, especially as opposing teams become more familiar with his strategies. But Toronto should want to keep him.

Credit Raptors ownership for paying to make it happen.

Now onto Raptors president Masai Ujiri

Dwight Howard is talking a lot of trash

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The Lakers put Dwight Howard on final warning BEFORE even signing him.

And for most of the season, Howard kept a low profile.

But he has been breaking out of his shell in the bubble. Related to basketball, too.

Howard has played excellent defense on Nuggets star Nikola Jokic in the Western Conference finals. The day after Game 1, Howard told Jamal Murray about it.

Sam Amick of The Athletic:

The Nuggets were wrapping up their practice, which took place not far from the Lakers’, with Murray about to begin his media session in the convention center hallway. Howard, as it so happened, walked by right then and the banter restarted.

“Don’t do that, fam,” Murray said to Howard, with both men smiling.

“What?” Howard said.

“Don’t do that, fam,” Murray said again.

“Where’s Joker at?” Howard replied. “Where’s his room?”

As was the case in the series opener, there was no answer.

Then, Howard (and JaVale McGee) pointed out Jokic’s defensive deficiencies against Anthony Davis in Game 2.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Once the Lakers’ bench saw it was Jokic tasked with guarding Davis, it brought the noise with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard screaming, “Thanksgiving, steak dinner, appetizers, filet mignon and potatoes, a glass of champagne!”

Davis, who faced up Jokic and maneuvered his way around the big man for a bucket in the paint. McGee shouted, “Told you it was a feast out there!”

Howard didn’t let up after Davis’ game-winner.

Amick:

As the Lakers mobbed Davis on the court after his shot, big man Dwight Howard broke off from the group and decided to taunt the Nuggets as they exited the basketball stage. If you somehow haven’t noticed, Howard is leaning hard into this tough-guy approach.

“Go home!” he yelled over and over while laughing, jumping, pumping his fist and getting closer to the Nuggets’ side of the floor with every second. “Go home!”

A small group of Nuggets staffers, including one of Jokic’s biggest supporters in assistant strength and conditioning coach Felipe Eichenberger, did not take kindly to the mocking that had taken place all game long and returned to the court to shout back. The two sides exchanged words, and eventually retreated to their corners that came with conflicting emotions.

This works because Howard is playing well – in his role.

Howard was slow to recognize he’s no longer a superstar. Yet, he still has the energy for being the center of attention. That used to mean doing things like posting up too much,

Now, Howard is focused on defending, screening and sometimes finishing at the rim while playing all-out in limited minutes. It’s what the Lakers need and what Howard can provide at age 34.

If he wants to talk trash along the way, more power to him. It’s a lot of fun.

But there’s also a fine line between the endearing villain and loathed jerk. Outside Denver, Howard appears to be the former. For now.