Three things we learned Sunday: Amid trade rumors ‘Melo is brilliant, but Knicks still lose

Associated Press
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Sunday you were probably busy playing reggae music for your dog — you certainly weren’t watching the Pro Bowl — so here is what you missed around the NBA while all that was happening.

1) The frustration builds: Carmelo Anthony is fantastic scoring 45 for Knicks, but they still fall in 4 overtimes to Hawks. Phil Jackson apparently is so set on trading Carmelo Anthony that he may be willing to take Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers and whatever flotsam from the Clippers it takes to make the salary numbers work out, then Jackson doesn’t want to keep Crawford. (Not that Jackson is wrong in wanting to retool around Kristaps Porzingis, but why wasn’t this the drive last summer when every Knicks fan and most around the NBA were thinking they should go down that road? Now the Knicks are looking at bad deals just to get it done fast. Amazing.) No doubt Porzingis is the future in NYC, and Sunday was making plays like this against Dwight Howard and the Atlanta Hawks.

But it was Carmelo Anthony who the Knicks best player on Sunday — he put aside the off-court distractions and played like Olympic ‘Melo. It was a veteran, professional performance. It just wasn’t enough as the Knicks fell in quadruple overtime 142-139.

Anthony came out scorching hot with 17 first quarter points on just 11 shots, and he still had it at the end with 11 points in the four overtimes. He was doing it from the midrange — Anthony took just two shots in the key, but was 13-of-25 from the midrange (particularly killing it on the right baseline) during the game.

It felt like the Knicks wasted a great Anthony game, but the game itself was one of the most dramatic and entertaining of the season — 23 lead changes, 21 ties, and a dozen players scoring in double-digits (with five fouling out, including ‘Melo). Paul Millsap played 60 minutes (37 points, 19 rebounds), one of six players to log at last 48 minutes. That showed on guys, particularly Courtney Lee, who was fantastic all game but didn’t seem to have the legs on his shots when he missed a game-winner opportunity in the third OT and a couple of chances to send it to a fifth.

I can’t describe this game’s wild final 20+ minutes, so just watch the video of every made bucket late in regulation and overtime.

2) Portland almost got Golden State. But not quite. Golden State was on the second night of a back-to-back, playing without Stephen Curry, and Portland was desperate for a win to keep pace with the Denver Nuggets for the final playoffs slot in the West. The recipe was in place for the upset.

It wasn’t enough. The Warriors are the best team in the NBA right now for a reason. With the game on the line a cold-shooting Klay Thompson (6-of-21) drained a three with 37 seconds left, and when Evan Turner got the chance to give the Trail Blazers the win late, he couldn’t. It ends 113-111 Warriors. Kevin Durant dropped 33 like it was nothing.

3) Donald Trump’s immigration ban leaves NBA world unhappy, scratching its head. Safe to say there’s not a lot of love for Donald Trump around the NBA, but his executive order restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority nations left the NBA league office looking for clarification from the State Department. Sudan — including the independent South Sudan — was on the list of seven countries where people from that nation were restricted entering the USA, and there are two NBA players from there: the Lakers’ Luol Deng and the Bucks’ Thon Maker. Their situations are a little different: Deng has dual citizenship with England, Maker the same with Australia, and both have lived in the USA for many years. Still, the NBA had questions, particularly with the Bucks playing in Toronto and questions about whether Maker could get back in the country. He did.

Still, the NBA world was part of the massive backlash against the ill-conceived executive order. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — a former Air Force man, don’t forget — had this to say (via ESPN):

“As you already know, I have lots of thoughts about what we’ve done to ourselves as a country and what we’ve allowed to happen. But we’ll see where this goes. Obviously the rollout today was Keystone Kops-like by any measure with objectivity. Whether you want to say it’s good or bad is irrelevant. But it was Keystone Kops, and that’s scary.”

Warriors coach Steve Kerr said the order was “really going against the principles that this country is about.”

Doncic’s 30, Mavericks’ 17-0 run lift them past Knicks at MSG

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NEW YORK (AP) — Luka Doncic had a game-high 30 points, Tim Hardaway Jr. chipped in 28 points against his former team, and the Dallas Mavericks beat the New York Knicks 121-100 on Saturday.

Spencer Dinwiddie scored 17 points for Dallas, which outscored New York 69-41 in the second half for just its second win seven games.

“I think it’s great that everyone’s in the locker room smiling,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “Everybody saw the ball go in, we shared the ball, we played the right way. … We’re a team that lives or dies by the 3, and today we made them.”

Forward Julius Randle led the Knicks with 24 points, and Immanuel Quickly chipped in 23. Leading scorer Jalen Brunson had 13 points playing against Dallas for the first time since he signed with the Knicks on July 12, but New York fell for the sixth time in its past eight games.

“To be honest, not fun,” Brunson said when asked what it was like playing against his former team. “They played great tonight. You got to give them credit. No matter who is on the floor, my approach stays the same. But to see them after the game and shake their hands, that was pretty cool.”

Hardaway exacted revenge against his former team, with whom he played 254 games over parts of four seasons. Hardaway had 17 points in the third quarter, including five 3-pointers, during a 27-6 run. He credited familiarity in New York – and Dallas’ previous game in Detroit – as keys to his third straight 20-plus point game.

“This road trip, when you have family and friends in both cities, it lightens you and brings some positive vibes and some positive energy,” Hardaway said. “To come here, to Detroit and to New York, both places where I used to play college and professionally, was a great atmosphere. I was comfortable, and my teammates (were) keeping me positive.”

Doncic, the NBA’s leading scorer, had just 11 points on 3 of 11 shooting in the first half. But he took over in the third, scoring 19 points on 8 of 10 shooting. Dallas outscored New York 41-15 in the third quarter, turning a tight game into a rout.

“The first half I wasn’t really participating,” Doncic said. “It was a challenge to come out of the locker room with more energy.”

The Knicks shot 55% in the first half, including 63% from the field in the first quarter. Randle had 14 of his 21 first-half points in the first quarter, including seven on a 9-0 run that gave New York an early 14-5 advantage.

The Knicks led by as many as 15 in the second quarter, but Dallas turned up the defensive intensity and cut New York’s lead to seven, 59-52, at halftime.

“The start of the game, I thought we were pretty good,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We built the 15-point lead, then we sort of lost traction mid-second quarter.”

Ja Morant fined $35,000 for using ‘ inappropriate language’ toward referee

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A frustrated Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant must have used some special language near the end of the Grizzlies’ loss to the Timberwolves, because both were ejected within a matter of minutes near the end of the game Wednesday night.

The league fined Morant $35,000 for “confronting and directing inappropriate language toward a game official and failing to leave the court in a timely manner following his ejection.”

Morant was not demonstrative at the time and was clearly surprised by the ejection. Before leaving the court he dapped up Anthony Edwards (who was shooting free throws) and a couple of other players before heading back to the locker room. Afterward Morant took to social media.

If the official said that to Morant, he should also be punished. The league can’t come down on players for not showing the referees respect if it’s not a two-way street.

It was an ugly loss for the Grizzlies, who fell to a Timberwolves team without Karl-Anthony Towns.

Teams reportedly watching to see if Bulls make stars available; Lakers had internal discussions on it

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It was a talking point going into the season: What teams we thought would be good will struggle, and then pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama in the lottery.

What about the 9-13 Chicago Bulls? They barely look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even at their best where do they fall in the East? Would they blow it up? With DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine, they have players that would interest other teams and could bring quality picks (or young players) back to Chicago. Other teams are watching, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

One of those teams: The Los Angeles Lakers.

That is according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post Podcast. He was discussing a potential trade floated by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons where the Lakers send Russell Westbrook and two future first-round picks (2027 and 2029) to the Bulls for DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic.

“The trade I saw on Twitter was Russ and both picks, one with light protections I think for DeRozan and Vucevic. I can tell you 100% for sure that the Lakers have had internal discussions about that very possibility, if it would ever come up. Not that they would do that. Let me be clear.”

None of this matters if the Bulls don’t decide to pivot, and they are not there yet. They may never get to that point. But the Lakers and other teams are surveying what teams might make game-changers available at the deadline, and the way the Bulls are stumbling has other teams keeping an eye on them. Expect the rumors to keep coming.

But for now, that’s all they are, rumors and speculation.

On the bright side for Bucks, Khris Middleton looks good in return

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton initially said that making his 2022-23 debut in his return from offseason wrist surgery felt great.

Then he quickly corrected himself.

“I should actually say good,” Middleton said Friday night after the Bucks’ 133-129 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “If we got the win, I think I would have been (feeling) great. It felt really good to be back out there with the guys competing and playing,”

Middleton, 31, had 17 points and seven assists while playing 26 1/2 minutes in his first game since spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee April 20 in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. That injury caused him to miss the entirety of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference semifinal with the Boston Celtics, a series Milwaukee lost in seven games.

The 6-foot-7 forward then had surgery on his left wrist in the summer, having played through the injury late last season.

“Pretty impressive how kind of seamlessly he got back into the game on both ends of the court,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Middleton said Friday at a post-shootaround availability that he might need some time to readjust, but the three-time All-Star didn’t show any signs of rust in his first game back. He shot 6 of 11 and went 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

“Just relying on my experience,” Middleton said. “Just (trying) not to rush and let the game come to me. Don’t try to do too much the first game back and try to fit in and play off my teammates.”

The most important thing is that Middleton felt just fine physically.

“Hopefully tomorrow when I wake up, I feel the same also and I won’t feel too sore or whatever,” he said.

The Bucks had gone 15-5 in Middleton’s absence. Milwaukee is second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Boston Celtics.

Middleton’s teammates believe his return should make them even better.

“It takes us to a whole different level,” Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We scored 129 points and we had a bad first half. That says a lot.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham knows how much Middleton means to the Bucks’ title hopes. Ham was an assistant coach on Budenholzer’s Bucks staff from 2018-22, including their 2021 championship season.

“Giannis is the heart and soul and the engine, and Khris is like the steering wheel,” Ham said before Friday’s game. “He’s the GPS in terms of understanding what to do. Giannis is the focal point but Khris is the master of putting guys where they need to be. He’s like that quarterback.”

The Bucks aren’t going to overexert Middleton as he returns to the floor for the first time in about 7 1/2 months. Budenholzer said Middleton probably won’t play Saturday at Charlotte.

“We’ll talk about it on the plane, but my guess is he will not play a back-to-back,” Budenholzer said.

Middleton’s just happy he’s back on the floor at all.

“Just a range of emotions,” Middleton said. “(I’ve) been through a lot these last couple months. Happy, sad, anxious, nervous. To finally get out there and play and get a lot of those nerves past me felt pretty good.