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Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis turning heads after being panned in Paul George trade

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DETROIT – Victor Oladipo is playing like an All-Star, hitting big shots, leading the surprisingly competitive Pacers and – along with Domantas Sabonis, who is suddenly showing why he was a lottery pick last year – forcing us to rethink the Paul George trade.

It has been just a dozen games, but if this is Oladipo’s and Sabonis’ new baseline, their careers – and Indiana’s future – look much brighter. Or this could be just a hot start in a small sample.

“I think this is who I am,” Oladipo said. “I think I can bring that every night, and I’m going to. At the end of the day, this is what it is. People might think it’s a high. It’s fine. Hey, I guess I haven’t proven myself yet. So, I mean, they’re going to think that. But just going to go out there and play as hard as I can every night.”

Oladipo and Sabonis have escaped Russell Westbrook‘s orbit. The Thunder rightfully built their scheme around the ball-dominant superstar, but that probably didn’t benefit Oladipo and Sabonis. Both spent far more time spotting up on the perimeter than optimal for them.

A Maryland native who played for the Indiana Hoosiers, Oladipo says he’s back in his “second home” – and looks far more comfortable. The ball is in his hands more, and he’s sparking a zippy attack. Oladipo is scoring a career-high 22.8 points per game, meeting the biggest role he has ever held with, by far, career-best efficiency.

Sabonis is attacking in the paint far more tenaciously, both as a scorer and a rebounder. He’s averaging a double-double with 3.0 assists per game, helpful halfcourt playmaking for a big man.

Neither player chafes at their role in Oklahoma City. “You’re in the NBA. You’re not the best player on your team anymore, in college,” Sabonis said. “You’ve just got to adapt to the role that you’re given and take advantage of it.” Oladipo says he learned a lot from Westbrook, especially his relentlessness. “You can have that mindset, but there’s levels to it,” Oladipo said. “He definitely hits the ultimate level, and it’s something I learned.”

But spending so much time trying to fit around Westbrook bottomed out Sabonis’ and Oladipo’s value. Oladipo looked like he wouldn’t provide surplus value on his $21 million annual salary, and Sabonis appeared to be more bust than boom.

That’s why the consensus, including me, labeled the Pacers big losers in the George trade.

“It doesn’t really bother us,” Sabonis said. “Maybe we want to show everyone on the court that we’re not just those other guys.”

Said Oladipo: “I was already motivated even before I heard that.”

That’s a very Russ answer. But can Oladipo sustain the Russ-lite production?

He might be coming down to Earth. The Pacers have lost four straight, and in his last three games, Oladipo has shot 7-for-21, 6-for-17 and 8-for-21. With a previous career high of 36%, Oladipo probably won’t keep making 45% of his 3-pointers.

Sabonis’ performance seems more reliable. He’s younger, and he’s now playing with the style it appeared he’d bring from Gonzaga.

At minimum, both players have shown the jury is still out on the George trade.

“I’m just happy I’m somewhere where the team wants me,” Sabonis said.

Watch Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic dunk all over Bol Bol

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Bol Bol had some impressive blocked shots during exhibition games at the NBA’s restart, but he hadn’t gotten one in his 16 limited minutes since the seeding games started. He wanted one.

So Bol tried to get in front of Jusuf Nurkic of Denver on Thursday and… that did not go well.

Bol did later get a blocked shot on Hassan Whiteside.

Nurkic, however, ended the night with 22 points, seven rebounds, and the Trail Blazers got a 125-115 win that has Portland comfortably as the ninth seed, just half-a-game back of eight-seed Memphis. Portland is setting itself up with a better-than-average chance make the playoffs

Kawhi Leonard’s 29 leads Clippers past Mavericks in potential first-round preview

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Kawhi Leonard scored 29 points to help the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Dallas Mavericks 126-111 on Thursday night in a possible playoff preview.

Paul George scored 24 points and Ivica Zubac added 21 points on 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds for the Clippers, who strengthened their hold on the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference standings.

The Clippers entered the night a just half game ahead of Denver, but they shot 54% against the Mavericks to improve to 2-2 in the restart.

Kristaps Porzingis scored 30 points and Luka Doncic added 29 for Dallas, which fell to 1-3 in the restart.

Dallas likely will finish as the No. 7 seed, making a first-round matchup with the Clippers a strong possibility.

“That’s obviously going to be a tough matchup,” Porzingis said. “They’re one of the favorites to win it all. They have multiple guys that have been there already. But we’re looking forward to the challenge and getting experience in that.”

Doncic was coming off a monster game — 34 points, 20 rebounds and 12 assists against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday. He made 10 of 21 shots against the Clippers, including 6 of 13 3-pointers.

“Luka’s just a handful,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “It takes a whole team to guard him. I thought our guys did a pretty good job overall. We lost him a couple times, which you can never do. So there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

The Clippers led Dallas by 12 in the third quarter before the Mavericks rallied and tied the game at 101 midway through the fourth. Los Angeles responded with a 9-0 run to regain control. The Clippers shot 62% in the fourth quarter to pull away.

“I just liked how we played overall,” Rivers said. “We played like a team tonight, on both ends.”

Though the Mavericks fell to 1-3 in the restart, Doncic remained confident.

“We’re a great team,” he said. “We’ve always got chances, no matter what. I think some people count us out, but we’re not out. We’ll give our max.”

Devin Booker says after latest Suns’ win ‘Kobe’s with me every day’

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Devin Booker grew up a huge Kobe Bryant fan. When Booker made the league in 2016 he got to play against his idol and threw up 28 points on the night. Kobe was impressed. The two talked after the game and Kobe gave him an autographed pair of shoes with an inspirational message:

“Be Legendary.”

Booker took that to heart. He got the phrase as a tattoo. He’s been writing “Be Legendary” on his Nike’s before every game in the bubble. And after he scored 20 against the Pacers Thursday, helping the Suns remain undefeated for the restart, he said Kobe is still inspiring him every day.

“Kobe’s with me every day. You guys see what I put on my shoes with the ‘Be Legendary.’ It’s a reminder.”

Whatever he’s doing, it is working. Booker hit a Kobe-like turnaround game-winner to beat the Clippers. He’s averaging 28 points and 6.5 assists a game for the restart, and shooting 40% from three. Defenses are keying on him, but with a healthy Deandre Ayton and other players stepping up — Cameron Johnson has been a surprise standout in Orlando — the Suns look sharp and keep on winning.

Kobe would be proud.

Giannis Antetokounmpo drops 33 on Heat, Bucks secure No. 1 seed

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton scored 33 points each, and the Milwaukee Bucks overcame a huge early deficit to get a 130-116 win over the Miami Heat on Thursday to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Heat led by as many as 23 points in a first half where the team piled up 73 points despite playing without Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. Miami cooled off after the break and the Bucks took the lead in the third quarter but were down by 6 to start the fourth.

Antetokounmpo, the favorite to win his second MVP award, sat out about five minutes of the fourth quarter after collecting his fifth foul with 11 minutes to go. Milwaukee trailed by 1 with about five minutes remaining before using a 20-0 run, with three dunks from Antetokounmpo, to make it 130-111 with less than a minute to go and cruise to the victory.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton played 30 and 34 minutes respectively after the stars both sat out the entire second half of their last game on Tuesday.

Duncan Robinson had 21 points for the Heat, who lost to Milwaukee for the first time this season after winning the first two meetings.

The Heat led by 6 with about 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter when Antetokounmpo picked up his fifth foul on a charge and headed to the bench. Andre Iguodala made a 3 for Miami before the Bucks scored the next 13 points, capped by a 3 from Bledsoe, to take a 107-103 lead with about seven minutes remaining.

Robinson made a 3-pointer to end a scoring drought of almost four minutes for Miami with about 6 ½ minutes to go and Antetokounmpo re-entered the game soon after that.

The Heat led by 12 with about 10 minutes left in third quarter before Milwaukee used a 16-3 run to take an 82-81 lead with five minutes left in the quarter. Antetokounmpo and Wesley Matthews each had five points each in that span to help close the gap.

The Bucks cut the lead to 3 with a dunk by Antetokounmpo late in the third. But the Heat wrapped up the quarter with a 5-2 spurt to take a 98-92 lead into the fourth.