Special summer: USA’s Kyrie Irving could win NBA title, Rio gold

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — When he wakes up in the morning, Kyrie Irving first looks at the scar stretching across his left knee, an enduring symbol of his journey over the past year.

It’s been quite a climb.

“It’s crazy to see how it’s worked out,” he said.

At this time last summer, Irving, the U.S. Olympic team’s ankle-breaking point guard – and kid brother to his doting teammates – was at a personal low point.

Playing in his first NBA Finals in 2015, Irving shattered his kneecap while banging into Golden State’s Klay Thompson in Game 1. The freakish injury not only cost the Cleveland Cavaliers a possible championship, but brought more criticism to Irving, who played in just 11 games in college because of a foot injury and has battled assorted maladies during his career.

He had been knocked down before, never like this. Bedridden at first, he graduated to crutches and endured grueling hours of rehab.

Once he started running again, he never stopped.

Irving returned from the injury and, along with LeBron James, led the Cavs to a historic comeback championship – Cleveland’s first since 1964 – this season. And as if lifted from a Hollywood screen play, Irving’s game-winning 3-pointer in Game 7 came from just a few feet from where his knee buckled the previous June.

Just 24 and maybe only beginning to tap into his potential as a player, Irving is now on the verge of pulling off a rare doubleheader – an NBA and Olympic title in the same year.

“It would be great,” he said Tuesday following practice. “I just want to get it done.”

It won’t be easy. Nothing has been in the Rio Games for the U.S. team, which escaped three close calls while going 5-0 during pool play. The Americans, seeking their third straight gold medal, will face another tough test in Wednesday’s quarterfinals against Argentina, the last team to beat them in Olympic competition and an experienced group featuring future Hall of Famer Manu Ginobili and a handful of current and former NBA players.

In his first Olympics, Irving knows the stars and stripes on their jerseys are also bullseyes.

“All the pressure is on us every single time we take the floor, which I happily accept,” said Irving, who tied a U.S. record with 12 assists in a win over France. “You gotta respect those guys. They make great offensive plays as well as defensively. You gotta be well prepared.”

Irving has learned there are no shortcuts to greatness.

Following his injury, Irving received support from family and friends. However, he realized that if he was going to make it back and be better than ever, there was only one person who could lift him.

“I just had to figure it out on my own,” he said. “I was going to be the only one who was going to get myself out of that funk. I just had to climb out of it. It really took a lot of pride, a lot of anger, built-up rage that I just had to let go. I just had to attack my rehab and attack the little things that were going to make the biggest difference when I came back.”

Irving has been re-united on Team USA with coach Mike Krzyzewski, who recruited him to Duke but only had him on the floor for a fraction of his freshman season. When Irving considered going pro, it was Coach K who encouraged him to take the leap.

They’ve remained close and Irving has had to accept his coach’s praise and wrath.

“I don’t think we would be able to speak genuinely about each other if we didn’t have a genuine relationship,” Irving said. “I’m very fortunate to have a mentor like that and have a guy like that in my corner.”

His teammates have Irving’s back as well.

Stars in their own right, they’ve watched him mature during his short stint on the national team. They also appreciate the work and sacrifice that went into his recovery.

“That just shows how relentless he is,” U.S. center DeAndre Jordan said. “He’s a warrior. I have so much respect for Kyrie. A lot of guys could feel sorry for themselves, but that wasn’t him. He came back with a vengeance, had a hell of a season, led his team to an NBA Finals and ultimately to a championship.

“I have a lot of respect for that guy as a leader.”

While the past year has been richly rewarding and satisfying for Irving, there’s unfinished business.

“I’m glad, but it’s not over yet,” he said. “I still have one more thing to do and that’s get a gold medal with this great team.”

Watch Donovan Mitchell drop 43, upstage LeBron return as Cavs top Lakers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — As a kid growing up in New York, Donovan Mitchell idolized LeBron James. On Tuesday night, he upstaged him.

Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points and Jarrett Allen returned from injury to add 24, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 116-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in James’ only visit home this season.

With Anthony Davis missing the final three quarters because of illness, the Cavs improved to an NBA-leading 11-1 on their floor, their best start at home since 2015-16, when James led them to a championship.

Mitchell, who has Cleveland fans dreaming of another title run, took over in the second half and scored 29 points with the kind of performance James had routinely during his 11 seasons for the Cavs.

“You always want to spoil the homecoming,” Mitchell said with a smile.

With Cleveland leading by 12 in the fourth, Mitchell buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to finish the Lakers. After dropping the shot, the All-Star guard strutted around the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor nodding his head as James helplessly watched.

“He’s Mitchell,” James said. “He’s a special kid.”

Darius Garland added 21 points and 11 assists for Cleveland.

James finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, losing for just the third time in 20 games against the Cavs.

Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook added 16 points apiece as Los Angeles had its four-game winning streak stopped.

Davis went out after eight minutes with flu-like symptoms. The eight-time All-Star had scored 99 points in his previous two games and had been playing as well as he has in several seasons after being plagued by injuries.

Davis didn’t attempt a field goal and scored just one point before leaving.

“It got progressively worse as the day went on,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “His temperature was 101 and some change. A-D wanted to try to play, but he felt too weak. He’s drained and dehydrated.

“That’s a huge loss, obviously, with the way he’s been playing lately.”

Without Davis clogging the middle, Allen, who missed the last five games with a bruised back, made his first 10 shots and helped the Cavs take a 57-49 halftime lead.

“Next man up,” James said when asked how he reacted to losing Davis. “That’s a tall task – literally and figuratively.”

The Cavs welcomed James back with a video tribute during an early timeout. After a montage of clips, including some from 2016, James waved to the crowd and then blew kisses to show his appreciation.

The warm scene was in contrast to what happened almost exactly 12 years ago, when he came back with the Miami Heat and was met with boos and worse on a night James has said he’ll never forget.

James said he was caught off guard by the tribute.

“It’s always love coming back here,” he said. “The memories I have here will never be forgotten.”

 

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.