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Overlooked no more, Donovan Mitchell ready for his time in All-Star spotlight

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Donovan Mitchell has been getting plenty of advice from teammates since he was named to the NBA All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest.

Problem is most of it was sarcastic.

“A lot of sarcastic advice, especially from Joe Ingles, telling me what he thinks I should do,” Mitchell told NBC Sports. “I watched his highlights from Australia. I don’t think he could jump over a phone book.”

Can Ingles even dunk?

“He can, he’s got one on the season,” Mitchel said, sarcastically defending his teammate. “We all pretty much jumped out of our seats like we were celebrating winning the Finals.”

Donovan Mitchell loves being one of the guys, joking around with teammates, but things are about to change for him. His star is about to get a lot brighter — Mitchell is going to be in the NBA’s spotlight during All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles this Friday and Saturday.

Mitchell has gone from almost overlooked 13th pick in the last draft — a guy Utah traded up to get because they believed in him — to the leader in the Rookie of the Year race averaging 19.6 points and 4.5 assists a night for Utah. That doesn’t mean casual fans know who he is. Not a lot of people tune in to see the Jazz play — they don’t get on national television much. Much like his team, Mitchell has flown a bit under the radar.

Not anymore. The Jazz are on an 11-game win streak led by Mitchell, who will be showcased All-Star Weekend in Saturday’s Dunk Contest and Friday’s Mountain Dew Kickstarter Rising Stars challenge. The high-flying dunks he was throwing down when not many were tuned in will be in Saturday’s brightest spotlight.

One year ago he remembers watching the Rising Stars and Dunk Contest in his dorm room at Louisville.

“So it’s kind of cool to be part of this game,” Mitchell said.

He’s also partnered with Mountain Dew Kickstarter to do a number of events around Los Angeles that weekend — raising his profile even further. Letting people see the funny, relatable guy behind the numbers and Utah hype. He felt it was a natural fit.

“One thing I don’t tell a lot of people, I used to drink Mountain Dew at Louisville, every day before practice,” Mitchell confessed. “It was my ritual… I used to drink it with a bacon and egg bagel. That was my morning, every morning at Louisville.”

The Utah Jazz training staff put a stop to that habit, but he still loves the drink.

Last June’s draft has turned out to be loaded and deep, but Mitchell’s breakout season has fans of 12 other teams saying “how did we pass on this guy?” Mitchell kind of expected it.

“I’ve always been a player who’s not really been talked about a lot,” Mitchell said. “Never really hyped coming out of high school — I was ranked top 50, but I wasn’t a name that was all over Ball is Life and all those platforms. Then coming into college I wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American, I wasn’t one of those guys averaging 30.

“Playing under (Rick) Pitino, it’s grit and grind basketball, and that’s how I was perceived. That just adds to the chip I have on my shoulder.”

Mitchell mostly played the two-guard at Louisville, but last season when Cardinal point guard Quentin Snider got hurt, Pitino handed Mitchell the keys to the offense — and he turned heads by dominating.

“I think the biggest thing was just having confidence in myself,” Mitchell said of the stretch that turned the heads of some scouts — particularly the ones in Utah. “Obviously, when our starting point guard got hurt I played a lot of minutes at the one for nine to 10 games. Being 6’3”, you’re going to have to be a one in this league, and you have to defend ones.

“When NBA teams were looking at me, I don’t think the problem was the defensive end, they wondered if I could handle one, running the team, getting guys in the right spot. There was a point in time where, for myself, I didn’t know if I could do that in the NBA. The fact that (Jazz) Coach (Quin) Snyder has put the ball in my hands, and having a guy like Ricky Rubio, who is right next to me in the locker room, helping me every day has helped this transition. We watch film relentlessly, we work out relentlessly, I think that really helped me.”

Mitchell has proven he can be the guy in the spotlight — but again it was an injury that gave him a chance. When Rubio was injured earlier this season, Snyder gave him the keys to the offense. Mitchell had worked to get his efficiency up, and when given a chance he was ready and never looked back.

Back in October, Mitchell averaged just 9.3 points a game with a dreadful true shooting percentage of 40.9. Like a lot of rookies he looked overwhelmed. However, no rookie has made the leaps in efficiency that Mitchell has this season — by December he was averaging 23.1 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 61.1. Those numbers have come back to earth a little, but when the game is on the line during Utah’s current 11-game win streak that has vaulted them back into the playoff picture in the West, the ball is in Mitchell’s hands. He owned the end of a recent game against the Spurs.

Mitchell credits his teammates and a lot of hard work — from the film room to the weight room — for his quickly improved efficiency.

“I can watch (video of) Kyrie (Irving) finish off one foot. Obviously, I’m a two-foot jumper, I think that’s why my efficiency was a little bit down in college,” Mitchell said of changing how he left the floor on jumps. “Being able to finish off one foot — same foot, same hand, like non-traditional finishes — has helped me a lot. Finishing through contact, getting on a lifting regimen — I didn’t really lift much in college, I was more focused on losing weight — and just being able to work on my balance. There’s so many little things off the court, in training and in the weight room, that have helped me, and working on finishing around the rim.”

Mitchell watches film with and works out with Rubio a lot. Rodney Hood — traded at the deadline to Cleveland — also was a confidant.

“Rodney Hood’s been instrumental in kind of mentoring me throughout this entire season,” Mitchell said. “We play the same position, obviously, and he’s been really, really helpful. It’s his career, and he has he has a really big, big role in Cleveland, and I’m really excited for him.”

Mitchell is going to get noticed this weekend, and he wants people to get to know him the person — not just as a guy who dunks.

“Outside of basketball, I’m a relatable guy, and I think partnering with Mountain Dew will allow people to see that,” Mitchell said. “I think I’m funny, I think I’m liked by people. So I’m going out there to show people how I am, my character off the court, how I handle myself, I’m not a jerk or a wiseguy or anything. I’m just relatable. Every kid I see I sign the autographs. Anything like that to show people how I am off the court and not the guy they kind of hear about but don’t really see.”

They’re about to see him now.

 

Myles Turner block, Julius Randle missed free throw with 0.1 left gives Pacers one-point win

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For the Knicks, under interim coach Mike Miller, this was a step forward. New York had been blown out by 37+ points their last two games, and that helped cost David Fizdale his job, but here they were with a chance to send the game to overtime late.

For the Pacers, this is just a win.

But that win came down to the final play — a blocked shot by Myles Turner then a missed Julius Randle free throw with 0.1 on the clock gave Indiana the 104-103 win.

“You get in those games, you’ve got to make another play and we just didn’t make another play,” Miller said, via the Associated Press. “Loved the effort. That was fun.”

A Jeremy Lamb and-1  had the Pacers up by six, 104-98, with 5:17 left. The Pacers would not score again.

What kept the Pacers alive was their defense — the Knicks shot 2-of-15 in the final 5:05 of the game, then with everything on the line Myles Turner came up with the game-saving block on Michell Robinson.

Julius Randle got the offensive rebound and was fouled when he went back up. That sent Randle — the Knicks biggest offseason signing — to the free throw line with 0.1 on the clock and the chance to force overtime. Randle hit the first, but…

There are no moral victories in the NBA, but this feels like one for New York.

For the Pacers, they will just take the win, thank you very much.

 

Russell Westbrook’s third-straight triple-double powers Rockets past Suns

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HOUSTON (AP) — On a night where James Harden‘s shots weren’t falling for three quarters, the Houston Rockets got big performances from those in supporting roles until the star stepped up late to close out the victory.

Harden scored 18 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter and Ben McLemore added 27 points to help the Rockets outlast the Phoenix Suns 115-109 on Saturday night.

Harden had a tough shooting night through three quarters and was 5 of 19 overall and 1 of 10 on 3s with 16 points before getting going in the fourth. The game was tied with about 7 minutes left, and he scored all of Houston’s points in a 13-6 run that made it 102-95.

“That’s how deep we are,” Harden said. “We have a really good team and guys that can make plays and knock down shots. More importantly we were focused on our defense.”

Russell Westbrook had 24 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists for his third straight triple-double and sixth this season. Harden finished 8 of 27, 3 of 17 on 3s and made 15 of 18 free throws.

Devin Booker led the Suns with 35 points after scoring a season-high 44 in an overtime victory at New Orleans on Thursday night.

Phoenix coach Monty Williams was proud of his team for staying in it until the very end.

“We have a mentality that we just don’t give in,” Williams said. “We’re playing young guys that are learning how to play against physical NBA men and that’s part of developing.”

The Suns cut the lead to five twice in the last 90 seconds, but both times Westbrook made a layup to extend the advantage. And the second time he was fouled on the shot and made the free throw to make it 114-106.

The Suns scored seven straight points, capped by a dunk from Kelly Oubre, to tie it at 85 with about 9 minutes left. After a timeout, Harden scored Houston’s first points in about three minutes on a layup to put Houston back on top.

It was tied again before Harden scored five points to give the Rockets a 94-89 lead. He stole the ball from Ty Jerome after that and was fouled by Booker on a drive, with Harden aggressively continuing forward and pushing Booker off the court. Harden later shoved Booker, and they both received technical fouls to the bewilderment of the Suns.

Harden made both free throws to make it seven points in a row and was fouled again after he stole the ball from Mikal Bridges. Harden made one of those free throws to make it 97-89.

“He finds a way to win the game,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “A lot of guys contributed. A lot of guys played well.”

 

Ben Simmons hits antother three, scores 34 points to lead 76ers past Cavaliers

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Ben Simmons hit another 3-pointer, and his coach wants him to keep on firing.

Simmons hit his second career 3 and scored a career-high 34 points, and the Philadelphia 76ers didn’t need Joel Embiid‘s help to rout the Cleveland Cavaliers 141-94 Saturday night.

Simmons made 12 of 14 field goals, including his only 3-point attempt, and hit 9 of 12 free throws in 26 minutes to help Philadelphia improve to 11-0 at home.

“I was locked in,” Simmons said.

Simmons’ jump shot – or lack thereof – has been a hot topic in Philadelphia. He entered the season 0 for 17 from long range.

Coach Brett Brown has repeatedly said shooting is a part of Simmons’ game that will develop with time. After Saturday’s performance, Brown publicly upped the ante and called for more from his All-Star point guard.

“This is what I want,” Brown said. “I want a 3-point shot per game, minimum. … He will be liberated. His world will open up and, in many ways, so will ours.”

Embiid sat out with a left hip contusion.

Darius Garland had 17 points for the Cavaliers, who have lost six in a row and 12 of 13.

“They were going downhill on us all day long,” Cavaliers coach John Beilein said.

Philadelphia has been projected to be an NBA title contender, but the 76ers haven’t been able to consistently field its starting five of Simmons, Embiid, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris and Al Horford. They have only started nine games together due to injuries and Embiid’s two-game suspension for fighting Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns.

The 76ers needed little more than Simmons in a dominant first half that ended with them ahead 77-36.

Simmons attacked the basket often and showed off a rarely seen mid-range game when he drained an 11-foot jumper with 6:04 left in the second quarter. That had 76ers fans cheering, but it was just an appetizer for Simmons.

With 3:41 left in the half, Simmons took a cross-court pass from Trey Burke and knocked down a 3 from the left wing. That send the sold-out crowd into a frenzy, and the roars continued when Simmons finished an alley-oop dunk from Burke on Philadelphia’s ensuing possession.

Simmons received a standing ovation at the next stoppage.

“I’m getting more comfortable learning my spots and just adjusting,” Simmons said. “I’m trying not to force it, trying to play the game I know how to play. Hard work pays off. Stay in the gym and keep working.”

Simmons finished the tremendous four-possession sequence with assists on Philadelphia’s next two trips, first to Horford for a 3-pointer and then to James Ennis III for a jumper.

Finally, Simmons ended the first half scoring with a 9-foot jumper for a 41-point lead entering the break.

 

Another day, another impressive Luka Doncic game: 28 points in 26 minutes (VIDEO)

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DALLAS (AP) — With Kristaps Porzingis joining Luka Doncic in the Dallas lineup this season, the Mavericks expected to be better. But Boban Marjanovic?

Doncic scored 28 points in 26 minutes, Porzingis had 13 points and the 1,500th rebound of his career and Marjanovic had season highs of 15 points and 16 rebounds to help Dallas rout the New Orleans Pelicans 130-84 on Saturday.

Doncic also had nine assists and six rebounds.

Dallas led 64-52 at halftime. Doncic already had 20 points, and Marjanovic scored 11 points, nine in the second quarter.

“(Marjanovic) did a great job,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “The group in the second quarter really did a good job of giving us a 10-point lead. He was a big part of it, getting it to him with a smaller guy on him. He was doing a lot of damage.”

The Pelicans didn’t get within 10 points in the second half.

“The rest of the game was just a formality,” Porzingis said.

Last season, Doncic was the NBA’s rookie of the year and Porzingis was injured and didn’t play after being acquired in a trade with the New York Knicks.

Marjanovic, a 7-foot-4 Serbian, played for two teams before taking a 50% pay cut to sign with Dallas as a free agent. He was a force against the undersized Pelicans.

“When they elected to use (Jahlil) Okafor, that was an opportunity for us to use Boban,” Carlisle said. “It’s hard to use him against guys like (Jaxson) Hayes because of the quickness and shooting.”

Porzingis and his teammates were happy for Marjanovic.

“Can’t stop Bobie,” Porzingis said. “He played great on the boards. He’s so big, so strong. Once he gets the ball in the paint, they can’t do much out there.”

Marjanovic energized the crowd and his teammates.

“When you hear (the crowd) cheering for you, basically you warm up your body so fast. Blood keep going through the body, and you’re not too tight anymore.”

The 46-point margin was two shy of Dallas’ season high against Golden State.

Dallas has won five in a row to improve to 18-8. The Mavericks have won 10 of 11 for the first time since winning their only NBA championship in 2010-11.

New Orleans has lost eight in a row.

“A poorly played game, a poorly coached game,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said.

Doncic, Porzingis and the other starters didn’t play in the fourth quarter after the Mavericks ran up a 38-point lead at 104-66.

Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 14 points.

Off the bench, Jalen Brunson scored 14 on 6-for-6 shooting and Seth Curry had 11.

J.J. Redick led New Orleans with 15 points. Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday scored 14 each and Hayes had 11.